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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

The Return of Disposable Plastic with Covid-19

Not that it ever actually went away, but boy is it getting so much worse.

I had thought that I was done with the Zero Waste series I’d been writing about for the past 1-2 years, but alas, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it, amongst many other things, the alarming notion that everything needs to be disposable in order to keep ourselves safe.

To be clear, I am not arguing against the use of disposables in totality – certainly in some instances it is completely warranted: in hospitals that deal with a lot of sick, vulnerable people with all sorts of body fluids flying around, for instance, or in cases where… well, that’s all I can think of, really.

The fact is, throwing away everything you touch isn’t the solution to keeping the virus away from you. It’s in keeping yourself, particularly your hands, sparkling clean and hygienic – which involves only water & soap, not plastic.

Unfortunately for us, the plastic industry is seizing on this opportunity to tout their disposable wares and doing their best to convince us that more throwaway plastic is exactly what we need to save ourselves – despite the fact that this planet is already drowning in plastic waste.

Below are some ways for us to not fall into that misleading hype. Let’s not use ‘safety’ as an excuse for even more pollution that will also endanger us in the long run (if it hasn’t already). More importantly, let’s not reverse the momentum of years-long battle fought to cut down on single-use plastic.


Opt for reusables

As always, when choosing between products or different options, avoid going for disposables or one-time-use items. Instead, opt for reusable, buy-once-use-forever items.

What this means:

No to disposable masks, yes to cloth masks that you can wash in detergent and dry in just a few hours. Tutorials to sew your own mask are easily found on the world wide web, and if crafting is not your thing, many others are selling them too!

My own DIY cloth mask sewed together using leftover fabric and wonky stitches.

No to disposable gloves (unless you’re a medic treating patients), yes to cloth gloves. However, it is a lot easier and more hygienic to simply wash your hands more frequently than going around all day wearing soiled gloves.

No to plastic bags, yes to reusable bags – they pose no more risk than any other thing (including plastic bags and your own hands) that come into contact with groceries without being properly washed.

Wash, don’t throw

We do not know much about the virus, admittedly, but by and large, the health and infectious disease authorities have assured us that the simple act of washing and cleaning up after ourselves is sufficient.

So before you throw out everything in sight, consider simply washing them clean. They’ll be good to reuse again once dry, just like your hands.

Discard responsibly

If you must, for whatever reason, use disposables or throw something away for fear of viruses crawling all over its surface, then do so responsibly. The amount of masks I’ve seen littering the streets is no joke, and is probably not helping reduce the pandemic spread either…

And this was in Japan, land of people known for cleanliness and discipline!

Don’t let the pandemic stop you for sorting your waste – organic waste can still be composted, and recyclables can still be recycled with no effect on your vulnerability to the virus (as long as you keep clean as per usual).

Build back better

You’ve probably heard the term ‘build back better’ a lot these days as people discuss lessons from Covid-19 and how to reorganize our lives and our surroundings to better prevent a similar disaster in the future.

If you started off managing this pandemic by relying on disposables, then ‘build back better’ by equipping yourself with less wasteful and less polluting resources as part of the ‘new normal’.

Re-evaluate your routines and your lifestyle, and continue to identify ways to cut down on your waste as you did or were doing before the virus struck. Improving our efforts does not have to stop with a virus attack – it will not be the last time this happens after all. Instead, let’s learn how to continue improving despite it all.

Advocate and hold organizations accountable

The issue of waste is really a global crisis, and is certainly not something you and I by ourselves can solve, though we should do our best nevertheless. It is important to hold those in power accountable and responsible for the way our society is structured that drives this wasteful behavior.

Whenever you can, advocate for your government and the businesses around you to uphold commitments to reduce plastic waste. If they have made no such commitments, fight and lobby for them to do so. Urge them not lose sight of longer-term sustainability goals whose repercussions are just as serious (if not as immediate and dramatic) as Covid-19.


This isn’t the first time the world is facing a pandemic, and it most definitely won’t be the last either. Given the increasing global inter-connectivity and reliance on international trade, it’s just a matter of time before somebody somewhere contracts something and passes it on to someone else and someone else and so on.

It is really up to us to manage the ‘next time’ better, with less more foresight and more wisdom. More importantly, it is up to us to ensure that short-term crises don’t exacerbate long-term crises, and that we don’t overturn years of progress over a few months’ panic.

To find out more about zero waste in a time of Covid-19, check out Zero Waste Europe's FAQs.


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