COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity for social change. Let’s not waste it.

Lauren Lynch and Coco Rhum

The trope that humans are the virus and that COVID-19 will be our environmental savior is now a familiar one. As the rhythm of normal life and the cycles of production that sustain it have halted for most of us, we have seen the planet respond quickly. Surely, COVID-19 has added to the indisputable evidence that climate change is human-driven.

And it’s not just climate change. Deep-running institutional and systemic problems have been exposed in new ways as a result of COVID-19: from the disproportionate impact of the virus on communities of color, the lack of health care infrastructure and the perverse fact that those who are now deemed “essential workers” are typically those who are valued and paid the least. We will inevitably see new paradigms and systems arise in a post-virus world, but that those systems will be just or sustainable is not necessarily the case. They can be, but only if we make conscious decisions to make them so. 

Changes in all of these systems are necessary. As Zero-Waste Interns for the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, we have been tracking and studying one issue that is positioned to backslide: the use of reusables and the renewed reliance on disposables and single-use items in ways that are seriously detrimental to the health of our planet and ourselves. What we’ve learned from interdisciplinary research and collaboration with experts on waste, epidemiology and public health, on both the campus and individual level, is that this shift towards single-use items is not necessarily more safe when it comes to responding to coronavirus. Guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration state that as long as proper health and sanitation measures are employed, the usage of reusable items is safe and does not risk viral transmission.    

Our trash does not disappear after we throw it away. It goes on to be managed by custodial staff, transported to a disposal facility and, in the case of recycling, sorted by hand. Single-use, disposable items pose a threat of contamination to all of the workers managing the waste. And, virus or not, single-use items are the source of many environmental injustices. Landfills and incinerators are often placed in low-income communities of color and cause increased pollution and lower air quality, which is highly linked to many chronic health problems. Single-use items are also often filled with chemicals that are harmful to our health. Disposables in our waste streams also end up in oceans, posing a threat to both aquatic ecosystems and the communities that rely on them. Additionally, production of these products requires ethane and ethylene (byproducts of petroleum refining), both of which are extracted from the earth via hydrofracking. Extraction of petroleum releases fossil fuels and the problems with use of these scarce resources extend on and on. Plastic production also requires high levels of water usage and other scarce resources. Ultimately, these disposable items are all representative of an unsustainable economy, and as such are deeply tied to the other systemic and institutional problems we have been contending with and continue to contend with now. 

Williams has an obligation to incorporate sustainability when deciding how we will return to campus. While we know that safety and food security are both of chief importance, we also know that those are not necessarily incompatible with sustainability and zero waste goals. Given the need to rethink systems at the College to meet our short- and long-term goals for bringing students back to campus and life in a post-coronavirus world, we must be creative and innovative in our planning. Indeed, this is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to our values around justice and sustainability, not just by naming them, but by creating systems that center them. 

Lauren Lynch ’23 is from Richmond, Va. Coco Rhum ’23 is from Brooklyn, N.Y.