Unintended Consequence: Trash Piles Up during the Pandemic

Unintended Consequence: Trash Piles Up during the Pandemic

December 23, 2020
Annette Maggi
TrendsRetail Industry Insights

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

We’re all aware that consumers’ food purchase, preparation and consumption habits have changed dramatically during the past nine months. One of the unintended consequences of these changes is trash. Residential trash volume spiked as much as 25% this spring, according to the trade group Solid Waste Association of North America. Everything from a reduced use of recyclable bags to a return to using single use plastics to an increase in deliveries has added to the problem. Empty pizza boxes, Amazon cartons, Styrofoam containers, and layers and layers of bags are causing household trash cans to overflow in this new stay-at-home era.

With initial concern about virus transfer on inanimate objects, many retailers banned recyclable shopping bags. Concern about touching produce items returned shoppers to the use of plastic bags in this department. With salad bars closed and counter service slicing of deli items shut down, more plastic, Styrofoam and paper containers were used to ensure shopper confidence in food safety. Home delivered groceries tend to include more packaging than when a shopper manages packing themselves. 

While not directly related to personal health, many consumers now include planetary health in their definition of wellbeing, creating an opportunity for retail RDs to include pandemic trash in their education and programming. Here are some ways to engage shoppers on this important topic:

  • Work with local municipalities to understand what is and isn’t recyclable and communicate this to shoppers through social media, in-store signage, and examples on high selling products.
  • Most retailers have returned to allowing use of recyclable shopping bags but shoppers likely need a subtle nudge back to using them. Retail RDs are experts at nudging!
  • Pitch media on the topic of food waste and increased trash during the pandemic and how everyone can pitch it to manage it.
  • The new year is the perfect time to remind consumers that in-store product shortages are not likely, to buy just the amount they need, and to stock up on canned, frozen, and products with longer shelf lives in an effort to reduce food waste.
  • Consider a campaign on consumer composting, partnering with a local company to offer reduced pricing on compost bins. 
  • Survey your shoppers on their favorite take out items and offer video demos on how to make these items at home, thus reducing packaging waste.