The spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has shaken daily habits around the world. In China, the virus lockdown led to a dramatic decrease in pollution from commuting and manufacturing. Can we use this emerging pandemic to do some good and reset daily habits to be more sustainable?

Even as Americans heard that the disease is a hoax, it shut down schools and company offices on the West Coast. A week after the appearance of COVID-19, reports of infections started doubling every few days. The impact on daily life is still taking shape. Looking to the example of China, where 750 million people were locked down and manufacturing came to a halt for weeks, Americans can expect that travel, work, and their sources of food and staples may be disrupted for weeks, perhaps months, as the coronavirus spreads.

It is at times like this that many things we take for granted can become startlingly fragile. And we humans will find new ways to cope. Whether you are stuck at home after being asked by local government to shelter in place or still waiting for COVID-19 to reach your community, you are probably already feeling the pinch of panic-buying and flagging supplies of goods.

Here are four areas of personal consumption to rethink while you have extra time on your hands.

1. Ration TP & Paper Towel Use — Permanently

Let’s start with the easiest but most unaddressed issue with panic shopping. If the beer aisle at your grocery store is not empty, the toilet paper aisle will be. We hardly think about the volume of paper goods that flow in and out of our homes in normal times. But when a virus, earthquake, hurricane, or other disaster hits, it’s the TP that flies off store shelves.

empty shelves in store in Humble, Texas
Empty store shelves in Humble, Texas. Source: Adobe Stock

Americans use a lot of toilet paper — 55 percent report using more than 10 rolls a month and 84 percent use more than five rolls, according to the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey. Americans use an average of 141 rolls per person a year. Yet, most of the rest of the world does not use toilet paper at all. The French use half as many rolls, at 71 per year, while in Brazil the typical person consumes only 38 rolls.

Perhaps this is a good time to reconsider your toilet paper use. Start by cutting the number of sheets you use per wipe. Each time you reach for the roll, take the time to count the sheets.

If you halve your toilet paper usage, you’ll save money and help reduce the millions of tons of paper that goes unrecycled annually. For example, an 18-roll Charmin package on Amazon is $20.91 at this writing. By reducing your own TP consumption 50 percent, or 72 rolls, you’ll save $83.64 a year. For a family of four, the savings will top $320 annually.

2. Kill Your Commute

Companies around the world and in Seattle, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, have asked employees to work from home, sometimes with no clear deadline for returning to work. Let’s use this as an opportunity to kill the idea that commuting to a physical office is the best way to collaborate. It’s a very 19th century idea — reinforced by car companies that describe long commutes as “freedom” in modern times.

Telecommuting is simple and affordable for almost any business. If you’ve never tried one of the many videoconferencing services — Zoom, Webex, Google Hangouts, and others — they are easy to use and affordable. It is not necessary that everyone participating have an account. Instead, one person can pay the monthly subscription fee to host everyone on a team of up to 50 or 100. The cost ranges from $9 to $19 a month and often includes other collaboration tools.

The challenge is coordinating the availability of the videoconferencing tool to team members. You may want to opt to have more people buy an account to provide multiple virtual meeting rooms. Each videoconferencing account can host a meeting.

3. Plan To Shop Sustainably

During China’s COVID-19 lockdown, which continues in many regions, the common refrain from residents in those regions was concern and anxiety about traveling to the store to shop and, after arriving, finding little to buy. Shopping in the U.S. is an almost religious activity, full of habits that took hold over generations. The coronavirus is a chance to rethink your shopping.

Even if you don’t want to plan your trips to the store, an interruption of global supply chains has already altered what is available at retail. And the act of shopping comes now with an awareness of other people’s coughing, touching products, and setting them back on the shelf. It’s important to plan what you want and to precycle intelligently. You can buy less and be more efficient, focusing on healthy products and locally sourced food to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet.

Make one big change to how you shop during the COVID-19 outbreak. Decide to go to the store only once a week. Or work out a route that lets you cover all your needs on one trip. Think in terms of reducing the entertainment value of shopping — the basis of expensive retail mark-ups — and concentrate on essentials. Of course, some experiential shopping may appeal to you, but do you need to kill three hours strolling the aisles and acting on impulse?

fresh produce
Source: Adobe Stock

Another option is to embrace at-home shopping with a conscious plan to reduce the number of deliveries to the absolute minimum each month. While at-home shopping has environmental costs, if you can convert your staples purchases to scheduled deliveries, it’s possible to eliminate trips to the store (and maybe to rid yourself of a car) that contribute as many CO2 emissions as the deliveries.

4. Build Your Local Network — of Friends & Food

Local food supplies are falling prey to conglomerates. In industries like dairy farms and produce, megafarms and massive feedlots contribute far more CO2 than comparable levels of production by small farms. And those small farms create livelihoods and support families, not just the stock price of a multinational.

Your community is a plant and you, your neighbors, and local institutions are the nutrients that make it thrive. While we are locked down together, it’s time to forge community ties that can activate productive political debate, efficient and sustainable food supplies, and the social interactions that make life worth living.

The social interaction you engage in online for your virus protection can be extended to in-person relationships when the all-clear is sounded. Not everything worth doing is on TV, so plan an after-COVID-19 party through online services while spending time at home. But make it a sustainable party, keeping the Earth in mind.

Disasters Pass, Living Goes On

COVID-19 is a shock but not unprecedented. Previous generations have dealt with Spanish flu, cholera, and bubonic plague, to name just a few. The difference is that today these diseases fly around the world with us instead of passing months on boats between distant shores, journeys on which the carriers of infection often died. The result was a slower spread, yet each of these diseases killed millions.

And then humans go on. The question we can ask ourselves this time is: How would we like to use the COVID-19 disruption to our lives to improve the world? We can move beyond the narrow-minded pursuit of survival and become more sustainable by examining our lifestyles and the assumptions they rest on.

The many individual tragedies of lost life caused by coronavirus can contribute to changes that help heal the planet. If you act on this opportunity to examine your life with an eye to improved sustainability.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.