The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives. We spend a lot more time at home, the daily commute to work has been eliminated for many, and the manufacturing industry has slowed down. But we’ve also been generating more biomedical trash, in the form of masks, sanitizers and packaging than ever before. COVID-19 has had an impact on the environment that we can learn from.
Let’s see three main ways the planet has reacted to the pandemic.
Post- and pre-lockdown images of city vistas that circulated around social media during the first few months of the pandemic in 2021 gave the impression that air pollution had seen a drastic reduction.
And, in many ways, this was true. As industries, transportation and companies closed down, sudden drops of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions were observed. Compared with September 2019, September 2020 levels of air pollution in New York fell by nearly 50% because of measures taken to control the virus. The European Environmental Agency predicted that, because of the lockdown, NO2 emissions dropped by 30-60% in many European cities including Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Rome and Paris.
In fact, according to UK-based climate science and policy source Carbon Brief, the pandemic has seen a whopping 25% reduction in CO2 emission in China.
But this is far less of an impact on overall GHG production than previously anticipated. Carbon Brief also projected that the pandemic could cut 2,000 metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to only about 5.5% of the global total in 2019. Further, this reduction would be entirely reversed when our lives return back to normal.
What’s more, even if this drop were permanent, it would not be nearly enough to limit warming to less than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade – nearly 2,800 metric tons of CO2 in 2020 – in order to achieve that goal.
Tourism and ecological restoration
Pre-pandemic, a study published by Nature estimated that the tourism industry accounted for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And, in general, tourism has significantly contributed to the degradation of natural ecosystems as millions from around the world visit – and damage – them.
But during the pandemic, as traveling has been curtailed, these ecosystems have had time to heal. As a result of a ban on public gathering and tourists, the sea water on Cox’s Bazar beach in Bangladesh has changed from its usual turbid and dirty to a calmer blue. For the first time in decades, dolphins have returned to the beach, and their numbers have increased in the Bay of Bengal in general.
The shutting down of hotels and resorts, which have large carbon footprints, and the decrease in air travel has also contributed to a decrease in carbon emissions.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, medical waste generation has increased globally, which is a major threat to public health and the environment.
According to a study published by the University of Southern Denmark, globally, we use and discard about 3 million masks a minute. Most of them are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers.
Wuhan in China produced more than 240 metric tons of medical waste every day during the time of the outbreak, which is nearly 190 metric tons more than usual. In Ahmedabad, India, the amount of medical waste generation increased from about 600kg per day to 1000kg a day during the first phase of lockdown.
In the US, there’s been a significant uptick of garbage from personal protective equipment, according to medical waste company Stericycle, which handled 1.8 billion pounds of medical waste globally in 2018.
This waste needs to be handled with much more care than general plastic or paper waste due the risk of spreading the coronavirus. However, due to lack of knowledge about infectious waste management, most people discard their face masks, hand gloves, etc. in open places and with household wastes.
In many places, this surge in waste has clogged waterways and seriously damaged the environment. There are also concerns that face masks and other plastic-based protective equipment are a potential source of toxic microplastic particles in the environment.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected the planet in both helpful and detrimental ways, and it’s our duty as environmentally-conscious global citizens to study these effects. We know now that so much of our work can be done online, and we know how quickly the planet can heal when we respect it, and give it its space.
COVID-19 has come at a great cost, but it has allowed our civilization to effect systemic change that would have under different circumstances taken many decades. The post-pandemic world is ours to shape, ours to implement the lessons learnt in 2020. Let’s not go entirely back to normal.
From masks to gloves to face shields to plexiglass dividers, how has the pandemic changed the way you consume and create waste? How different do you think the post-pandemic world is going to look? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!