Covid-inspired Earth Month could be the push we need

April is Earth Month, and while in past years we would have created human-inspired activities to promote appreciation of where we live, it seems that this month the planet has decided upon self-care.

In just a few weeks, fewer people on the move has resulted in cleaner air and water; there are lots of positives to come out of the slowing down of economies when economic growth is inverse to the health of the planet.

But in the long-term, Covid-19 is actually causing a lot of damage to our environment. TerraCycle operates in 21 countries and we have unfortunately seen some recyclers either temporarily close, or processing a lot less than usual, especially as commercial waste volumes have dropped.

Plus oil is the cheapest it has been since 1991, which means it is cheaper to make new plastic than that made from recycled materials, reducing the value of those materials. 

The sale price of the processed materials is central to the recycling business model: if the cost to collect and transform the material is more than what the recycled product can be sold for, there is no incentive for the processors to recycle that material. 

Adding to this, consumers are using more disposables such as take-away containers, as well as health and safety products, that all end up in landfill.

All this means that unfortunately we will wake up to a bigger waste crisis than the one we were in, as we will have created more waste in a time when there were fewer solutions. 

Even before Covid-19, recycling needed a boost. In Australia, the post-consumer packaging recovery rate in 2017–18 was estimated at 49 per cent, and when it comes to plastic, we only recycle about 16 per cent*. This is despite almost 88 percent of packaging being ‘recyclable’ through current systems. 

There is a big difference between what is technically ‘recyclable’ and what can practically be recycled. That black plastic in your eye-shadow case? That foil-lined plastic food pouch? Your contact lenses? Your coffee pods? Your toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes? Small plastic toys? These products can all be recycled, but they will not be accepted in your yellow bin because the process to recycle just isn’t worth the time or effort for most large-scale facilities. Again, it comes down to an economic gap.

At TerraCycle, we are able to recycle these products (and hundreds more) at no cost to the consumer. This is because the brands that produce the items, cover that economic gap by working with us to pay for programs that allow the waste to be collected and recycled. 

However our free programs are only one way to address the growing recycling crisis. 

While you are looking at your stockpile of food, think about how you are going to dispose of all that packaging. If you can’t see the Australian Recycling Label on the product that indicates that you can put it in your yellow bin, check if there is another recycling scheme such as TerraCycle that will take it. If not, vote with your dollar and challenge brands to provide sustainable solutions.

And when life returns to normal, ditch the bad habits we had to readopt to get through this period, such using single-use coffee cups. Since War on Waste first aired in 2017, the zero waste culture had made good inroads. Let’s revive that momentum towards a circular economy.

Hopefully we will wake up at the end of all this and realise how the planet has benefitted from a climate change point of view – less emissions, less pollution and a renewed sense of  appreciation for our home. 

Use Earth Month as a time to reflect on how to cut single-use packaging out of your life, what buying habits you need to address to ensure you are making sustainable choices, and what initiatives you could leverage, such as choosing reusable packaging in your weekly grocery shop, to help all of us move more quickly towards the circular economy. 

Perhaps Covid-19 will be the impetus for all of us to be more aware of the choices we make, and the steps we can take to ensure we enjoy economic growth without it costing the earth.

* (figures from the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation’s April report Our Packaging Future)

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