From boxes to gloves: Three ways the waste stream changed during COVID-19

The changes in America’s production of waste during COVID give us an opportunity to reevaluate the waste problem in our country as a whole and develop effective strategies that protect our environment. 

Christiane Paulhus


Christiane Paulhus is a Frontier Group summer intern. 

The novel coronavirus has brought with it a dramatic change in waste patterns around the country. In this new normal of hyper-sanitation, reusing products – the second plank in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” platform – has come under suspicion.

Speaking personally, my family has run through an abundance of single use masks, plastic single-use gloves, plastic containers of Clorox wipes, Lysol cans and more as we have tried to stop the spread of COVID-19 by keeping everything clean and sterile at all times. Not to mention the Amazon packages that have shown up at our doorstep with unnecessary packaging able to fit a product much larger than the one that was ordered.

However, while there have been drastic surges in plastic and cardboard waste, not all trends in waste production have been negative. Here are three important waste pattern changes we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Cardboard Waste Has Surged

People have been staying home more than ever before, working from home and forgoing travel, but many have engaged in another activity they can do from the safety of their homes: shopping.

Online shopping has greatly increased since the start of the pandemic. In July, online sales in the United States increased by 55% from the year before, reaching a total of $66 billion. Online sales have been growing for years as shoppers have grown accustomed to the convenience of shopping at home, but COVID-19 has accelerated the trend.

Rising, too, is the amount of oftentimes excessive packaging that gets delivered to our homes and is damaging for the environment.

Amazon Prime used to encourage users to bundle their shopping on small individual items by requiring a $25 minimum purchase to qualify for free shipping. Amazon would then send out a box with all of the customer’s small purchases. Now, however, Prime users can enjoy free shipping on any item, regardless of their cart’s total or the item’s size.

These packages add up. According to one estimate from 2018, about 165 billion packages are shipped in the US every year, equaling 1 billion trees worth of cardboard packaging. The surge in online shopping likely escalates this already existing problem, contributing to more trees lost and more waste accumulated.

2. The Plastic Problem Deepens

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, includes masks, gloves and other medical equipment. It’s often made of plastic and meant to be discarded after a single use to avoid contamination.

It would be a problem if all that plastic trash was going to landfills or incinerators. But there have been reports of plastic gloves and disposable masks being thrown on streets and public grassy areas. Officials are concerned that PPE litter will find its way into drains leading to waterways, killing animals and other wildlife and trashing our precious rivers and streams.

Some in the plastics industry have also used people’s fear of COVID-19 and increased caution with regards to contamination to their advantage. These companies have pushed back against limits designed to reduce plastic pollution.

For example, some states, such as Massachusetts, banned reusable bags at the beginning of the pandemic, and many grocery stores also forbade shoppers from bringing their reusable bags, instead providing shoppers with single-use plastic bags. In California alone, the suspension of plastic bag bans has resulted in an estimated 500 million additional plastic bags per month.

It now appears that the concern about reusable bags may have been overblown. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that coronavirus could last longer on plastic surfaces – up to 72 hours after contamination – than on other kinds of surfaces, including cardboard. The increased use of disposable plastic grocery bags – intended as a safety measure – may not be helping to contain the spread of COVID, while causing significant damage to the environment. On the other hand, reusable bags – initially thought to be a health threat – are not now considered to be a major source of transmission, particularly if customers sanitize them with disinfectant soap and hot water.

3. Commercial Waste has Plummeted

With everyone at home and many businesses closed, commercial waste has seen a decrease, with the amount of recycled commercial materials declining by 25 percent in some places. For retail stores, no shoppers meant no need to have goods delivered. Even if some of those retail stores are now open, fewer shoppers are going into the stores meaning that the turnaround of goods is lower, decreasing the need to order more goods.

Restaurants also contributed to this decline. Since people are not dining in restaurants as much, supplies are not needed. Shipment of bulk food and restaurant accessories was on pause when these businesses were closed and now is lower because fewer people are dining in, again resulting in a reduction in packaging waste. While more people are getting takeout, the number of customers is not equivalent to what they would be under normal circumstances.

Cutting waste in the new normal

The changes in America’s production of waste during COVID give us an opportunity to reevaluate the waste problem in our country as a whole and develop effective strategies that protect our environment. Measures can include banning the sale of single-use items that are not easily recyclable or compostable, including packaging, plastic bags and food service ware. Since packaging makes up nearly one-third of materials thrown out by homes and businesses, policy-makers should ensure that producers limit their packaging by enforcing taxes or bans on items that have minimal use or are particularly damaging to the environment.

We should also make recycling convenient, easy and mandatory. To make that happen, recycling and composting services must be made available everywhere there are garbage disposal services. By putting the infrastructure in place, we can achieve a zero waste system – even in the “new normal.”


Christiane Paulhus


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