How To Be More Eco-Friendly — While Staying Safe — As Illinois Continues To Reopen

Washing reusable masks and making your own wipes are some of the ways to produce less garbage during the pandemic.

Trash bin with COVID-19 waste and PPE
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in garbage from disposable masks, gloves, bags, wipes and takeout containers. But experts say we can reduce some of this safely. Miranda Zanca / WBEZ
Trash bin with COVID-19 waste and PPE
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in garbage from disposable masks, gloves, bags, wipes and takeout containers. But experts say we can reduce some of this safely. Miranda Zanca / WBEZ

How To Be More Eco-Friendly — While Staying Safe — As Illinois Continues To Reopen

Washing reusable masks and making your own wipes are some of the ways to produce less garbage during the pandemic.

Like other cities across the nation, Chicago has seen an increase in residential garbage as a result of the state’s stay-at-home order, city officials said.

And nestled in those garbage bags, you’ll likely find lots of pandemic related items, including disposable masks, gloves, takeout boxes, wipes and plastic grocery bags.

This inspired Curious City listener Sandy Kaempen to ask:

Just how much more garbage have we generated with this pandemic, with so much more medical waste, PPE items and carryout containers?

This is tough data to track down locally because Chicago officials say they don’t calculate COVID-19-related waste separately from other waste.

But we do know that Illinois’ pandemic equipment requests to the federal government included nearly 100 million disposable gloves, almost 17.5 million disposable gowns and nearly 12 million disposable N95 masks. The feds didn’t fully deliver on the requests, but the numbers offer a glimpse of how much pandemic-related waste may be piling up around the state in health care settings alone.

This disposable health care waste may be unavoidable, but Sandy wondered if that’s also true with non-health care waste. So she asked a second related question: How can regular citizens start reducing COVID-19-related waste now that we know more about how the virus is transmitted?

To find out, we consulted experts, caught up on new policies and devised a few winning strategies of our own. The result is this handy list of ways to stay safe and relatively green during the pandemic.

Skip the latex gloves for most things:

Early on, many people used latex gloves to run errands. But now, health experts including the CDC and Dr. Jennifer Grant, an infectious disease physician at NorthShore University HealthSystem, say that’s probably not necessary.

They still recommend gloves for frontline workers, and when cleaning or caring for someone who is sick, but otherwise they recommend hand-washing.

“The virus isn’t going to infect by penetrating your skin on your hands but rather through your mouth, nose or eyes,” Grant says. “So if your gloves are contaminated and you are scratching your nose or eyes, you are no better off than if you weren’t wearing them.”

Pro tip: If you worry about dirty hands after doing errands, keep some hand sanitizer in your bag, bike basket or car. Despite what you may have heard, it will not ignite in a hot car.

Opt for a reusable cloth mask:

Yes, we know they can be uncomfortable and hot in the summer, but masks aren’t leaving us any time soon. So it’s time to find some you don’t hate (or maybe even look great in) and learn how to wash and use them properly.

Grant urges care when removing masks: “Think of the outside surface as a potentially contaminated surface. Handle it by the straps and wash your hands after taking it off.”

To keep them clean, the CDC recommends washing masks after use with a five-minute soak in water and mild detergent. The agency recommends air drying in the sun or in a hot dryer.

Pro tip: Machine wash and dry them in a lingerie bag (aka bra-saver) to avoid damaging or stretching out the straps.

Know when and how to use (and reuse) other masks:

Surgical masks and high-quality KN95 and N95s are technically meant to be disposable. But with the current shortage, even frontline workers have been known to reuse them. The CDC does not have official rules on how many times you can reuse them, but offers some general guidelines here.

Pro tip: N95s should still be reserved for frontline workers, but many people have found them at home stored with their tools from previous home projects.

Make your own disinfection solution:

If you want to avoid using multiple disposable wipes, the CDC says you can make a disinfectant bleach solution with four teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. Spray it on a cloth or hard surface, wipe and let it air dry. Use with paper towels or, even better, clean reusable washable towels. The CDC warns against applying disinfectants to food.

Pro tip: Put the disinfectant in a clean empty spray bottle and label it clearly as diluted bleach solution.

Break out your reusable grocery bags — but only for bagging outside:

Back in March, Gov. JB Pritzker allowed stores to temporarily ban the use of reusable grocery bags to potentially slow the spread of COVID-19 among grocery workers.

But it was just a suggestion, and in the intervening months, we’ve learned that surfaces, including cloth bags, are not significant paths of transmission . So several chains like Tony’s Fresh Market, Aldi, Pete’s Fresh Market and Whole Foods recently welcomed back reusable bags as long as customers packed their own groceries. However, in a stunning move, Pritzker issued recent executive orders “discontinuing” reusable bags from all retail stores across the state. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on why, or whether or not that would preclude customers bagging their own groceries in their bags at the store.

Still, consumers may see more stores interpret the executive order the way Jewel Osco spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco has: “Customers may bag their own groceries outside the store, but not inside.”

Pro tip: Even if you’re the only one packing, it’s a good idea to give those reusable grocery bags a regular wash.

Bring your own reusable food container to a restaurant:

Now that some restaurants are open for both takeout and dine in, there are more opportunities to use your own container to bring food home. For takeout — depending on the dish, of course — you may be able to ask the restaurant to place your sandwich on deli paper and hand it to you on a tray so you can package it yourself. Or if you are dining in, you can order the food, eat as much as you like and then box up the rest in your own container.

Pro tip: Check out an article and video on BYO-container strategies and laws here.

Shop at places that make it easy to reduce waste:

If you want to further avoid plastic waste during the pandemic — and even buy your disinfectants in refillable glass jars — check out stores like the Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Logan Square, the Sugar Beet Food Co-op in Oak Park or the brand new Eco & the Flamingo. These are some of the only stores in the area that allow you to bring your own clean containers to weigh and refill with bulk food, spices, cleaners and soaps.

Pro tip: Keep a clean empty container in your reusable bag for spontaneous eco-shopping when possible.

More about our question asker

Sandy Kaempen, Curious City Question Asker
As a longtime recycler, Sandy Kaempen was worried by the amount of garbage the pandemic has generated with medical waste, single-use PPE and carryout containers. (Courtesy of Sandy Kaempen)

Sandy Kaempen is a northwestern suburban native and Arlington Heights library staffer.

“I have always been a recycler even when I was a kid and we could only do glass,” she says. “So when this whole thing started and you couldn’t take your reusable grocery bags to the store and everyone was getting takeout, I was seeing the single-use masks and gloves and all the wipes — it just seemed to be an incredible amount of garbage. So I was worried.”

Sandy is happy to hear that there are several ways Illinois residents can now reduce their COVID-19-related waste, but she was upset to learn Pritzker has banned reusable bags from all retail stores. This move by Pritzker comes as California’s governor just banned plastic bags and welcomed back reusables bags.

“That’s depressing,” she says. “You know all those plastic bags are just going to end up in the landfill.”

Still, she hopes that more people will learn about other ways to reduce COVID-related waste.

Sharing information happens to be part of her job at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. There, like a walking Curious City, she says she spends a lot of her time answering people’s questions.

Since the library reopened this month, she says, the staff has been taking special COVID-19-era precautions.

“We are being very careful with anything returned or donated,” she says. “And we quarantine books for three days before they can go out again. It’s a very interesting time.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at meng@wbez.org.