Metro Vancouver litter study shows how COVID has changed litter
Metro Vancouver residents threw away about 260 million face masks in 2021, more than double the previous year’s total, according to the regional district’s latest waste composition study.
The rise in mask use is one of many notable pandemic-related trends seen in the region’s litter.
In 2020, for example, the number of disposable cups residents threw away fell from 2018 levels, from 262 million (102 per person) to 174 million (64 per person).
Large swaths of society staying at home meant fewer reasons to buy coffee and other drinks to go.
In 2021, the number of disposable cups in the region’s bins rebounded to 271 million (98 per person due to population growth).
Single-use take-out containers experienced the opposite trend. Metro Vancouver residents threw away 259 million in 2020 as restaurants closed to in-person dining for part of the year. This was a significant increase from 2018, when 179 million people were wiped out, but totals returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
It’s not just what people have thrown away that has changed because of COVID-19, according to Terry Fulton, senior project engineer for Metro Vancouver’s solid waste management services team. The places where waste was dumped also changed significantly.
“What we noticed in 2020 is – unsurprisingly – there was a lot less business coming as people were spending a lot more time at home, and that led to a change in the mix (of waste),” Fulton told CTV News.
Now that more people have returned to offices and almost all COVID-19 restrictions have ended, he said the region’s waste disposal patterns have largely returned to normal.
Fulton touted the return to pre-pandemic habits as “an opportunity” to reduce waste, citing retail shopping bags as an example.
At the start of the pandemic, the use of bags increased, with many stores temporarily banning customers from bringing their own reusable bags for fear of virus transmission on surfaces.
In 2021, bag usage remained high, although few, if any, stores maintained such bans.
“Now that residents can once again bring their own reusable bags and reusable cups, we encourage residents to continue these habits,” Fulton said.
This, along with other actions like saying no to disposable utensils and straws, “can go a long way toward reducing our single-use items and reducing our overall waste,” he added.
Face masks, of course, are also disposable, but Fulton said they only accounted for a small proportion of Metro Vancouver’s waste in 2021, even though mandates have driven their numbers up.
“Personal protective equipment only accounts for a small fraction – less than one percent – of all waste disposed (in Metro Vancouver), but it’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on. future,” Fulton said.
He noted that studies on the composition of waste are “a snapshot in time” and said it’s no surprise that the number of masks thrown away in 2021 is much higher than in 2020.
Metro Vancouver’s 2020 waste composition study was conducted before masks were made mandatory in all indoor public spaces in British Columbia, while the 2021 study was conducted in December and January , near the peak of the Omicron wave and after nearly a full year of mask mandates.
In 2022, with masks recommended but no longer mandatory, the number seen in our bins is likely to drop again.
“We do studies on the composition of waste every year and we will certainly continue to look at personal protective equipment in future studies and see how that changes as we no longer have things like mask mandates,” said Fulton.