The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has influenced resource use and how people interact with their environment, with changing priorities and competing public health factors affecting pro-environmental behaviours at individual, societal, business and political levels.
We used data from an online plastic footprint calculator to explore temporal changes, purchasing patterns and consumer behaviours around on-the-go plastic use during the pandemic. We hypothesised that 1) people's plastic use when on-the-go would change in response to the pandemic and related government restrictions and; 2) single-use plastic use on-the-go would decrease during lockdown periods due to restrictions against leaving home.
The calculator received 1937 responses, with 13,544 plastic items recorded. Most used were food wrappers (54 % of all items), takeaway containers (12 %) and bottles (9 %). Six out of seven items showed increased use during lockdowns, in-line with our first hypothesis, but not the second. Three times more bottles were used, food wrapper consumption almost doubled, and takeaway container use more than doubled. Increased container use occurred alongside increased takeaway meal consumption during lockdowns. Patterns were similar between different periods of lockdown, with no significant differences in the number used of any items, or percentage of respondents using them. Results indicate that during lockdown, people found it harder to avoid single-use plastic while on-the-go, supporting evidence from other studies that plastic use can be driven by perceptions of hygiene benefits and lack of “safe” alternatives. Our results indicate opportunities to reduce single-use plastic consumption and we provide examples of successful implementation. Our findings evidence that, when properly applied, government-led guidance can effectively support consumer choices for reduced plastic use, encourage use of reusables, increase provision of alternatives, and dispel hygiene myths. The sudden increase in plastic waste due to the Covid-19 pandemic amplifies the need to substantiate plastic reduction policy promises without further delay.