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Doing More with Less – Lessons Learned in 2020

Susan Robinson

December 9, 2020

6 Min Read
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As the year winds down and the holiday season kicks into gear, now is the time to reflect on how we’re doing, where we’re headed and what steps we can take to improve waste reduction performance and overall environmental quality.  

2020 has been a year that feels like a decade, a time of challenge, change and crisis. Our lifestyles have changed over the past nine months as our mobility, social interactions and ability to engage in commerce were curtailed by the reality and restrictions of COVID-19. We’ve been compelled to do more with less.

Here’s the thing, though. That lessening effect has been a net positive for sustainability.

We’ve realized a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., and when it comes to GHG emissions, “less is definitely more.” All of us, intentionally or unintentionally, played a part in that improvement.

Recently I completed an inventory of my personal carbon footprint to evaluate where I can make changes (https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/).  My driving is minimal, my diet is primarily plant-based, and my consumption patterns have decreased as I get older. However, under normal circumstances I spend a significant amount of time on airplanes – often flying from coast-to-coast.  No matter how hard I try to justify this, I am painfully aware of the contradiction between my work and the impact of my travel on the environment. 

Then came March and COVID-19, and THE END OF TRAVEL.  And it wasn’t just a grounding of air travel; the brakes were put on daily commutes as well. For many of us, less time in cars, trains and planes has been one bright spot associated with doing less, and I, for one, have no intention of resuming the same travel schedule as pre-COVID. Ever.  

This reduction in our commuting and travel activity resulted in an enormous global environmental benefit. A recent Bloomberg BNEF article by Nathaniel Bullard tracked the reduction in emissions associated with the pandemic. 

This year’s (GHG emissions) numbers are on track to be 9.2% lower than in 2019 – the biggest drop on record.  U.S. greenhouse gas emissions haven’t been so low since 1983, BNEF estimates, when the U.S. economy wasn’t quite 40% of its current size (Bloomberg 11.19.2020).” 

This is encouraging news in a year where we really need something to celebrate!  We can embrace this reduction and find ways to build upon it in future years. Indeed, working from home and connecting via video calls are likely here to stay, which will help to keep transportation-related emissions down.  

Mr. Bullard goes on to explain that “transport emissions are about a quarter of the U.S.’ total emissions, but account for more than 40% of the total decline in emissions…”.  There are two important points to make about the impact this reduction has had on the environment:  First, it is a reminder of the role that energy plays in our society’s total global GHG inventory.  Emission reductions associated with transportation and energy use are fundamental to achieving the goal of keeping global warming within the 1.5° limit outlined in the Paris Climate Accord.  Second, it is not enough. We need to find more ways to do more with less to decrease emissions.

Without taking too much away from the good news about the reductions associated with the largest single emissions source in the U.S., Mr. Bullard also notes that “industrial and agriculture emissions will increase” in 2020.  In other words, while overall energy use is down, our economy created more emissions associated with manufacturing industrial products and wasting food.

This brings us to the waste industry, where data offers a different story from the rosy news associated with fewer miles travelled in 2020.  

While we may be discarding less waste in offices and public places, our waste volumes at home are running about 10% higher than in previous years.

This got me thinking about our daily habits and how they have changed over the past nine months – particularly around food and meal preparation.  Most of us are consuming more of our meals at home, which offers the opportunity to change food consumption habits. We’ve had to adjust to the reality of product shortages and delivery delays - learning that perhaps we didn’t need “that exact item, right now.”  We are making adjustments and doing without.  And we have survived just fine.

Yet, we are also using more grocery and meal delivery services and have seen an overall increase in the use of single-serve plastic in the waste stream, creating more non-recyclable waste.

Bringing this new trend into focus, a recent report on China’s plastic waste volumes highlighted the country’s new $50 million per year meal delivery industry that has emerged during COVID.  This industry relies on single-use plastic packaging for meal deliveries, and likely reflects similar increases in other countries, as well.  Indeed, waste disposal habits do not appear to be showing signs of a commitment to reduction.

Even for those of us who do not have the mind-numbing challenge of balancing childcare and online learning while working, and for whom the Great Pause of the pandemic has forced a break from our never-ending quest for convenience, it hasn’t been all buttercups and roses. Travelling for meetings and events has been replaced by endless Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls. With colleagues tethered to desks, the number of daily emails in our inboxes has skyrocketed. The expectations for productivity are just as great – if not greater, and the stress of working alone can be draining.  

But between meetings, we have access to healthy meals prepared in our own kitchens and we can buy more bulk products since we are home every day. Being home allows the opportunity to pause and rethink our priorities, including areas where we can continue to make a positive impact on the environment. In some ways, sustainable living has been made easier with our new, simpler lifestyles.

So, in addition to the impressive benefits of reducing our GHG emissions associated with travel, COVID-19 has also created the opportunity to reduce emissions associated with food waste.  With 31% of food waste coming from the residential sector, we have a significant opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of this portion of the waste stream. 

This is also an area where environmental and social goals collide, with food insecurity in our own communities often going unchecked.  Food plays a critical role in many of society’s greatest challenges, as identify by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals), many of which highlight the need to end hunger as critical to providing peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future.  Hunger impacts learning. Wasted food in landfills contributes to emissions. Discarded/wasted food costs the U.S. economy more than $160 million annually.  Food reduction, food redistribution, food waste prevention and end-of-life food waste management touches environmental, social and economic issues associated with sustainability.

Supporting food banks or other local food redistribution efforts is more important now than ever. One example is an organization called GOODR, a company established to help provide nourishing food to individuals, with dignity. We all have programs in our local communities that need our support. This year, like no other, engaging with these local groups is important.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on physical and mental health, and the economy.  At the same time, our response to COVID-19 has expanded our perspective on the environmental and community benefits of doing more with less.

As we look back on 2020, let’s applaud the positive impacts that our “doing without” had on the planet. Let’s also be intentional as move forward and continue the “less is more” approach to caring for our planet.

About the Author(s)

Susan Robinson

Senior Director of Sustainability and Policy, Waste Management

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