Britta Gustafson: 2020, now that’s a wrap (in plastic)
That spring shutdown-slowdown that seemed to stunt global carbon output? Well, it didn’t last long.
With years of hindsight helping us look toward better climate choices, the “20/20“ version of this vision seems to be blurred behind a veil of sanitary plastic wrap.
Gazing beyond the hump of the longest night of the year, past a holiday season of unrivaled chaos and beyond Pitkin County’s flashing Red level restrictions, a distant, faint, yet hopeful light seems to be shining on a return to normal. And yet, as we stumble through this darkness, it makes me wonder: Will we reemerge having learned anything from this year, or was it a significant step backward?
In April, when the spring birds were singing and the sky was clearing, the slowing down of global pollution appealed to many of us who, at the time, were grasping for any upside to the tragedy of the unfolding global pandemic. But while we were congratulating ourselves for temporarily reducing carbon emissions, a more polluted future was brewing.
Fast forward to the end of 2020, and we can now see that the COVID-19 pandemic actually set back climate action, sparking a global rush for plastic with the byproducts of packaging and shipping at an all-time high. We have increased our global output of solid waste, and now we are heading for a post-shutdown ‘carpocalypse,’ as one transportation news site phrased it.
And that spring shutdown-slowdown that seemed to stunt global carbon output? Well, it lasted about as long as our self control.
With the convergence of health and economic crises, our attention seemed logically pulled away from the slower-moving disaster of climate change — unless, of course, you took notice of the epic wildfires and hurricanes — and we began to slow what baby-steps we had been taking to do our part.
Still, for many of us (myself included), we felt we had no choice.
At first, shopping on Amazon seemed safe, responsible even. We hardly considered that about one-third of an average landfill bound dump-load is made up of shipping and packaging material. (All while in the real Amazon, illegal loggers have accelerated their destruction of the rainforest while the coronavirus distracts us, allowing 2020 to have been the biggest year for deforestation in more than a decade.)
Plastic waste has also surged as COVID-19 prompts restaurants to use more disposable packaging. Take in a snapshot of our efforts in Snowmass to combat the coronavirus and maintain the little (albeit unnecessary) niceties like the free S’mores at Base Village, which are now packaged and wrapped individually, one marshmallow at a time. Though it’s a very nice gesture to keep the magic of Snowmass alive, I doubt we were thinking about the planet — or the Snowmass Village 20-by-20 pledge to reduce carbon emissions and divert solid waste — when that wasteful yet pandemic-friendly practice of individually wrapping and then discarding everything began.
Before the start of the pandemic, cities like Aspen were making some progress in shifting from single-use plastic to paper products and encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags. Now, we seem to be willing to throw away more than ever. Plastic place settings at restaurants, non-medical PPE for non-essential workers, masks, gloves, wipes: it’s a new era wrapped in plastic.
And we weren’t doing that great to begin with. Global statistics show that the United States tops the nations that fuel the ever-worsening waste crisis, with the average American producing nearly five pounds of trash per person per day. That goes up to more than nine pounds of trash per person per day in Pitkin County, according to the county landfill’s website.
The US is at the top of the trash producing heap, so perhaps we should feel some level of responsibility for our trashy nature. But hey, it’s a pandemic, so disposable everything seems logical.
Here in Pitkin County, the numbers do seem slightly better than the picture I’m painting. When compared to 2019, our municipal solid waste production (MSW) to date is down 5%, and food waste is down 10%, according to the latest statistics from Pitkin County landfill. But that could be because because all major events were canceled and restaurants and commercial businesses have been open at limited capacity, according to an email from Cathleen Hall, the solid waste director for the county. These are not numbers to be celebrating.
One upside is that compost and soil sales are up 10%, possibly because people have been home more and doing more gardening, Hall noted. Drawing down emissions and nurturing the land is a plus for all.
But what also may have appeared to be a good sign is a little less positive at second glance.
The Pitkin County landfill started seeing a normalization of numbers in the fall, equal to what they were last year, Hall wrote — all while our business capacities remain limited.
And we can already project the ripple effect of the real estate rush resulting from the new valley-wide construction boom. Nationwide construction waste already contributes to over 40% of all solid waste, and that number is even higher in Pitkin County. That could increase in 2021, when the real estate upswing turns into an unparalleled remodeling phenomenon.
As soon as the restrictions are released, will we go back to where we were? Perhaps now with new preferences for even more disposable products and a higher-than-ever demand for shipping and packaging materials?
A year ago, way back in the historic days of 2019, climate action had been finding a place in the forefront of our awareness as young people advocated for its urgency. But today it seems to be slipping away, even from our daily practices.
Perhaps as we create a 2021 vision, we should take a good look at what we could live without — maybe starting with one cutesy, individually wrapped, marshmallow.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at email@example.com.
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