A new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability found that plastic items used for packaging takeout food and drinks contributed nearly half of the plastics in the world’s oceans.
Researchers arrived at this finding after examining 36 global inventories of marine trash from seven major aquatic environments. The researchers found that only 10 plastic products make up 75 percent of marine trash. Eight of these were made of plastic, and 44 percent of this plastic litter was from plastic products used for wrapping takeout food and beverage.
“It was shocking to find that bags, bottles, food containers and cutlery together with wrappers account for almost half of the human-made objects on a global scale,” Carmen Morales, a professor of biology at the University of Cadiz in Spain and the study’s lead researcher, told BBC. “We found them in rivers, on the deep seabed, on shorelines and floating off our coasts.”
In recent years, many stores have stopped using plastic straws and stirrers to help mitigate plastic pollution. The researchers said that those actions are welcome, but they recommended also tackling plastics used for takeout food. They noted that takeout plastics are often discarded soon after the food was bought. (Related: 90% of plastic waste comes from Asia and Africa, but Americans are told they need to stop using plastic straws.)
To that end, the researchers recommended three strategies to combat the problem: using degradable materials in takeout containers, creating regulatory bans on avoidable plastics and encouraging deposit-refund schemes to encourage consumers to return takeout containers.
Morales hopes that her team’s findings will bring about change. “This information will make it easier for policymakers to actually take action to try to turn off the tap of marine litter flowing into the ocean, rather than just clean it up,” she told The Guardian.
Pandemic drove increase in plastic use
Before the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many restaurants and fast-food chains had started shifting away from single-use plastics to paper or reusable products. But they reverted back to single-use plastics for fear that reusables could spread the virus. This was especially the case for takeout orders.
Restaurant chain Just Salad, for instance, used to produce reusable bowls that saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year. When the pandemic hit the chain, the company immediately paused that program, closed in-store dining and pivoted to delivery and pick up – both of which meant using only disposable packaging.
“The environmental fallout is definitely real,” said Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer.
A similar pivot was made by Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, both of which stopped letting customers use reusable mugs.
John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at the nonprofit Greenpeace, said that the plastic industry seized on the pandemic to convince people that single-use plastics are necessary to keep people safe, and that reusables are dirty and dangerous.
“Exploitation of COVID-19 fears ultimately made people less safe, distracting attention from the need to focus on the risk of airborne transmission and critical measures … like social distancing,” he said.
Michael Oshman, CEO of Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit that certifies eco-friendly restaurants, urged companies to try to find alternatives to single-use plastics, such as disposable packaging made with high post-consumer waste. He also suggested generating a QR code so customers could read the menus on their phones rather than disposable menus.
For its part, Just Salad started asking customers if they wanted plastic utensils with their pickup or delivery orders, which typically included a number of single-use plastics. The company implemented this scheme on its online-ordering platform around the start of last year’s lockdowns. It said that the scheme saved the company money and reduced utensil use on those orders by 88 percent.
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