COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts the Environment Negatively

John Huss is a philosophy professor at the University of Akron. He received a bachelor’s degree in geology, a master’s degree in geophysical sciences and a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science. He currently teaches a class on environmental ethics which is about the ethics of consumption and human choice on the environment.

Headshot of John Huss, the source for this story.
Headshot of John Huss taken on Zoom call by Madisyn Woodring

Q: A lot of businesses have switched from using paper to single-use plastic again because of coronavirus. What are the effects of using single-use plastic on the environment?

A: The ability to recycle plastic, while there is some ability to recycle plastic, actually encouraging the recycling of plastic and promoting it was to some degree like kind of a PR move for the plastic industry to enable them to say, look, what we’re creating is not some sort of blight on the environment. I mean, there’s a lot of ways they can spin it. As soon as people start thinking plastic is recyclable, they have no qualms whatsoever about like buying bottle after bottle of water, or something like that, or some other beverage. So the big problem with the impact of plastics on the environment, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that most plastics don’t really biodegrade, they just become very tiny. They just become very tiny bits and once they get small enough, then their uptake into the base of the food chain is very easy. So for example, if little bits of plastic wind up in aquatic systems, then filter feeders who are not at the bottom of the food chain, but they’re close to it will be filtering what they’re adaptated to get is algae, other sorts of plankton, small things that they can filter out of the water but now in addition to that, they’re also filtering out little tiny bits of plastic. Since they’re pretty low on the food chain, if other things eat them, you get bioconcentration of plastics in the food supply. So it has an adverse effect not only on those organisms, which think or, you know, are acting as if they’re, you know, getting nutrition, but instead they’re filling themselves up with plastic and there’s like all kinds of gruesome footage of like cutting open a dead sea bird or sea creature and seeing that it’s got like cigarette lighters in it. Then also you get plastics concentrated in the tissues of animals that are consumed by other animals that are consumed by humans. Many of these plastics contain compounds that mimic the effects of hormones, like some of them will activate estrogen receptors. So I mean, it’s very likely that there’s some kind of contribution to the rate of cancer and to earlier onset of secondary sexual characteristics. So maybe accelerated sexual maturation so you get somebody who normally a nine-year-old would not be undergoing puberty but might because of plastics that are in the environment. Plastic washing up in bodies water just from an aesthetic point of view is ugly. I just think you know, plastic is like up there with like, all the like the really some of the worst things for the environment.

Q: Some people have been disposing of reusable masks by littering them. Can littering masks have a negative impact on the environment?

A: Yes and I think that what happens with a lot of a lot of litter, especially masks, they’re kind of light in weight, and they can easily be blown. So that’s the kind of thing that I expect to see dangling from tree branches and also maybe, again, blowing into bodies of water and then concentrating further. I think the main risk there is probably just, it’s just ugly. I mean, I could imagine them choking some natural drainages and things of that nature. I really I have to say that overall, I haven’t really thought about that very much.

Q: Have you noticed any other impacts on the environment since the pandemic started?

A: Well, there’s a few. I mean, so one negative impact, speaking personally, I’m far less likely to take public transportation than I would have previously. I did notice recently that there’s been a huge spike in purchase of used cars. So initially, we had a lockdown phase, which probably, to some degree, at least as far as greenhouse gases, it did make a dent. Although, it didn’t make as big a dent as people thought it would. It made some. It definitely decreased the amount of greenhouse gases from automobile emissions, but automobile emissions are like a small part of the overall budget of greenhouse gas emissions. People were at home, they were probably using maybe slightly more electricity than they otherwise would so that was increasing it and a lot of it a lot of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and things like that. So it didn’t make as big a dent. So anyway, while the economy is locked down, it did seem to reduce somewhat greenhouse gas emissions but now that the economy is opening back up, and people still have the same fears,  justified fears of catching COVID, like on a bus or something like that, fewer people are taking public transportation. More of them are driving and that’s probably going to push things in the opposite direction in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, whatever slowdown in economic activity has occurred and whatever positive effect that has on greenhouse gas reductions is probably going to be at least somewhat counteracted by fewer people taking public transportation, more people driving cars. So that’s one thing. You already pointed out the other one that I would have said is that single-use plastics. Like just to take an example, if you go to a store, a lot of stores discourage you bringing your own bag. I mean, I’ve been bringing my own anyway, but many stores made it a policy. We don’t want you to bring your own bag. I mean, they generally didn’t prohibit it altogether but there is an emphasis more on, like you said earlier, single-use plastics and stuff that can be thrown away. Why would we recycle because that might be something that like sort of could transmit the virus and so forth. There’s a lot more throwing things away. Buying plastic bottles of a hand sanitizer and instead of just refilling the one that you have, like throwing it away and getting another one that’s appropriately sized. I do think that there’s a lot more single-use stuff because people view it as more sanitary to use something, throw it away and take a new clean one that’s not contaminated. I also think that while initially, I thought that the whole culture of ordering things and having them delivered to your home instead of going out and shopping was a positive environmental impact. Now, I think it might be more mixed because I think that some people are kind of doing both. They do a combination of having stuff delivered and since many, like Amazon and Walmart, and so forth, are increasingly either free or very cheap to have stuff delivered. So if somebody thinks of it, they just click and they buy something, maybe something that they wouldn’t even normally have thought about buying, but they’re just like, yeah, why not? I could just have delivered. They buy it and then if they still need to go out to the store anyway, they still go. So you’re not necessarily saving on emission, the amount of emissions there. You’re probably doing a little bit more. So I think people got a little bit habituated to ordering stuff in and are sort of anxious to get back out there. So they’re also shopping as well. I don’t know what the overall effects have been on consumption but I’d like to see. Delivery plus actually going out shopping could be having an adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Q: Is there any way to properly balance health and sustainability?

A: Yeah, I mean, I think that you have to embed public health in an overall ecological framework. Sometimes it’s called greening healthcare. I think the easiest way to think about this is in terms of preventive medicine. So if you want to have a more environmentally sustainable approach to health find ways to encourage the day to day habits of people to be healthier habits, which will also have the consequence of being more environmentally friendly. So for example, we all could benefit from walking more. We all could benefit from riding bikes more and we all could from an environmental standpoint, we all could probably benefit from eating foods that are locally produced instead of having be shipped great distances. That would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and would also keep agriculture like local agriculture viable. I think also in terms of mental health, something that we discovered in my household that we haven’t been paying very close attention to is just gardening. I think that’s, that’s good for your health eating fresh foods and it’s also something that’s environmentally friendly. I mean, the packaging. There’s no packaging involved. It’s a little bit of work but you can scale it how much time you have, like so for some people, it’s just gonna be like growing some herbs in their window sill and just maybe, you know, cutting them and sprinkling on existing food. For some people, if you do have some property, you could plant things. Some things are easier to maintain than others, like growing potatoes is very easy. You just plant them and then you forget about them and then at some point, you pick them up. Other things that require more like tomatoes. So gardening could be something that both promotes healthy eating and is  good for the environment. I would just say like moving in a less meat based direction is also something where you could have human health enhanced and environmental health enhanced. And I think more important is having the attitude in the medical establishment, especially, of not separating out like, you know, medicine is about the treatment of disease. And yes, you might have environmental commitments. Well, prevention matters and Health Matters just as much as the avoidance of disease. I mean, I think if we just turned our attention to it more and we rethought how we compartmentalize these different aspects, I think some progress to be made.