July 22, 2020

Waste and the Pandemic: Can we fight both?

By Rachel Ashley

As states pause reopening plans, it has become clear that we all need to take drastic steps to keep the virus from spreading.

Yet consumption of single use plastic in the US has increased by 250-300% due to COVID.

The average American already produces 1,700 lbs of trash per year. Yikes. How can you protect yourself from contracting and spreading COVID-19 while continuing to prioritize sustainability?


Small Footprint, Big Impact: Cover Your Face


First, let’s put this in context: masks are low-carbon footprint items with high impact on the disease. The carbon footprint of a mask, especially a homemade or locally made mask, is likely less than 1kg CO2e. We did our own analysis below, which aligns with other analyses that have been done. That’s less than a single vegetarian meal. (Note: For detail on the mask calculations, see the bottom of this article*.)


For top virus protection, choose masks that fit your face and have 1-2 layers of thickness. To protect yourself while you protect the planet from more consumer waste, follow these two tips:


  1. Make your own (or buy from someone who did): Before you purchase, try your hand at making a mask. If you can make a sourdough starter, there’s a good chance you can make a mask from an online template. When you reuse material you already have, you reduce the carbon footprint of your mask.

    If you purchase masks, look for ones made from scrap material and created by local artisans and merchants. Etsy offers great options and even includes a location filter on the left hand side so you can purchase from the city you’re in (and offset the footprint of your shipping).


  1. Choose kind materials: Organic cotton, hemp, and flax are all effective, natural, biodegradable options for mask protection when layered. Hemp sequesters carbon and flax regulates temperature well in the summer. Each of these fabrics (and any fabric) become more effective when layered (2 layers) and when the mask fits comfortably.


The bottom line: the carbon footprint of a mask is small, but its impact on the spread of the disease can be massive.



Go Package-Free: Wash Your Hands


Soap: keep it simple and package-free


Soap and water offer as much protection as hand sanitizer and ensure people who need hand sanitizer can access it at reasonable prices (e.g. medical professionals, people without access to clean water etc).


Lathering up and washing effectively with plain old soap and water reduces bacterial count by 90%. As long as you wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, even if you pick a natural or sustainable soap option over harsher chemicals, you’ve reduced your risk of contracting and spreading the virus.


A few of our favorite soaps:


  • Local soap bars: If you are in your home, any bar of soap from your local neighborhood shop should be safe for hand washing. Look for bars that cut out packaging altogether (or at least have recyclable packaging),  giving you the opportunity to reduce waste. Bohicket Apothecary sells handmade, organic soaps that are good for you and the planet.

  • The Package Free Shop: The Package Free shop sells waste free soap bars and hygiene solutions to guarantee you reduce your waste and your risk of contracting COVID.

  • Ecos Soap: Ecos hand soap is plant powered and produces products in a carbon neutral factory. Clean your hands and green the planet. Be sure to recycle packaging after use.


Sanitizer: look for local distillers and sellers


If you do purchase hand sanitizer, look for a local distillery or business creating disinfectant from leftover product. Southern Methodist University’s Data Science program created a map of distilleries creating hand sanitizer to save you time.


Use Plant-Based Products: Disinfect Your Space


The question: can we keep ourselves safe from COVID-19 with sustainable cleaning products?


The answer: Yes, if you purchase plant-based cleaning products that disinfect, have minimal packaging, and contain naturally occurring chemicals (e.g. you don’t need bleach to be safe in the pandemic.). Regardless of a cleaning solution’s origins, most need to sit on a surface for a minimum of 1-10 minutes to effectively combat COVID.


To confirm the “disinfecting power” of a cleaning product, review the ingredients and compare to the EPA’s searchable disinfectant list. Unfortunately your homemade white vinegar, water, and essential oil cleaning spray does not make the cut. Reviewing every ingredient can be a hassle, so we did the work for you and shared our top three sustainable cleaning solutions that contain at least one disinfecting ingredient:



  • Mrs. Meyers: While Mrs. Meyers doesn’t offer zero waste refills, the brand combats COVID-19 without harsh chemicals. Mrs. Meyers’ household cleaners contain citric acid and sodium chloride; both naturally occurring and effective against COVID when used properly. Let’s not forget the added benefit of the wonderful scents Mrs. Meyers offers.


Cleaning your home doesn’t have to hurt our home planet. Plant-powered, disinfecting products in minimal packaging are sufficient for pandemic cleaning, and safe for your family.






*Additional detail on carbon footprint of mask calculation:

Mask Calculation:

  • Our carbon footprint estimate on the instructions for a simple DIY mask provided by thespruce.com, which requires ~0.75 sqft of cotton fabric and ~1.5ft elastic cord.
  • Using product weight specifications from retailers such as Amazon, combined with LCA studies estimating the kgCO2e emitted per kilogram of "knitted cotton" and "concentrated latex", we calculated the estimated kgCO2e associated with each of these components.

Transportation Calculation:

  • Our calculation was based on the method laid out by the EDF Green Freight Handbook.
  • In making this calculation, we assumed that all shipments were made via freight truck transport, which has an EPA emissions factor estimate of ~160 gCO2e/ton-mile.
  • Using product specifications from online retailers, we estimated the weight of the mask and the packaging to be ~1kg.
  • By multiplying this emission factor by the weight of the product and distance of shipment, we calculate the estimated kgCO2e for both local and cross-country shipments.

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