During the pandemic, the earth held its breath

What we can learn from COVID-19 and its environmental impact

By Wyatt Loy

Understanding COVID-19 and how it effects civilizations provides insight into how better to fight climate change. Specifically, it’s going to take a lot more than a year at home to combat or reverse the effects of fossil fuels and municipal waste.

However, we can learn a thing or two from the pandemic about our emissions and waste impact on the environment, and use that information to better formulate our strategies against the threat of climate change.

“The sustainable practices we’ve developed before the pandemic have sort of fallen to the wayside,” said Jennifer Caddick, from the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “There’s been some significant concerns about plastic usage.”

During the early weeks and months of the pandemic, air pollution slowed briefly, according to Climate Central, but new information shows that pollution exposure worsens COVID symptoms and only increases deaths. Further, air travel has started to climb back up from its over 60% drop from April to May, with some sectors already returning to their previous levels of pollutions. The chart below shows CO2 data throughout 2020:

For reference, here’s CO2 data from 2018:

Notice how Texas has far and away the highest amount of CO2 emissions–this is due to the booming fossil fuel industry; Texas produces more fossil fuel energy than any other state in the country, and it’s not even close.

A 0.14 drop in emissions doesn’t seem like much–and in some ways it’s not–but a sustained drop in emissions across the globe for even a couple months is nothing short of significant. But regardless of whatever benefits the halt in global and domestic travel have had for the environment, The Economist reported that experts believe the amount of fossil fuels and energy consumption required to restart certain industrial processes will actually do more overall harm to the atmosphere than the few weeks or months of reduced pollution.

As for plastic production, things like disposable masks, food packaging, single-use items, and COVID tests all contribute to the global waste problem, said Maggie Heiser from the Ohio Environmental Council.

“The production of disposable masks, disposable gloves, and other safety equipment” Heiser said. “Has had an impact on worldwide plastic waste the likes of which we haven’t truly understood yet”

Jennifer Caddick from the AGL agrees.

“While there’s no data from 2020 or 2021 yet about plastic usage,” Caddick said. “Plastic waste is still a huge problem, and that problem certainly did not put itself on pause while we’ve been dealing with the pandemic.”

Looking at past data on plastic usage can also be a useful indicator of future trends. This map below shows plastic waste data from 2010. We know that in the years since, countries like the U.S. have only increased their plastic usage. A good example of this is California and its ban on single-use plastic grocery bags. Before California banned plastic bags in 2016, citizens were using upwards of 500 million of them daily, according to PBS’ FRONTLINE. Then, in response to pressure during the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom paused the ban, allowing plastic usage to surge once more. States with similar bans on single-use plastics would follow, and states that were considering bans put them on hold, according to FRONTLINE.

The problem was exacerbated by the spread of misinformation regarding plastic bags.

“[Plastic industry executives] were misusing a lot of studies to make people afraid and think they were going to contract coronavirus and die from bringing reusable bags to the store.” Ivy Schlegel, a researcher from an environmental advocacy group called Greenpeace, told PBS.

Single-use face masks already pose problems by sitting in landfills, but when not disposed of properly, they become even more of an environmental nightmare. In early March, a large amount of face masks in Hong Kong were not disposed of properly, which caused them to wash up on beaches, according to Reuters. Local marine life can mistake these masks for food and die, further compounding the issue.

“We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume,” environmental group Oceans Asia founder Gary Stokes told Reuters in March 2020. “We are now seeing the effect on the environment.”

Most disposable surgical masks are made of polypropylene, a type of plastic that does not break down for potentially hundreds of years. Even then, it breaks down into microscopic pieces—called microplastics—that never truly disappear. And when people around the globe are using an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves monthly, according to Scientific American, it’s easy to see how human action over the course of less than a year will have consequences for decades, if not centuries. 

Surgical masks, gloves, testing kits are all vital and necessary for fighting the pandemic, but the problems of climate change and pollution don’t cease to exist because we’re fending off a pandemic. Sooner or later, we’ll have to come to grips with the results of humanity’s actions.

“While we need to be very conscious of the health implications, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted,” Dr. Christian Dunn of The Plastic Research Centre at Bangor University told BBC. “Covid will eventually go away, plastic waste won’t, it’s here forever.”

On a larger scale, municipal waste has been growing in many parts of the world. Municipal waste is defined by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) as “waste collected and treated by or for municipalities.” This includes waste from households, places of business, commerce and trade, yard/garden waste, streetsweepings and litter. The chart below tracks municipal waste for various countries around the globe since 1975, measured in kilograms per capita per year.

Source: OECD

New Zealand has the historical peak for the largest amount of municipal waste, and Denmark has the current highest amount of waste per capita. The United States is not far behind, with waste on a generally upward trend since 1975. 

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that it’ll take more than an outside force to make significant progress on combating climate change–the With larger swaths of Americans getting vaccinated, attention can slowly turn to the things we’ve relegated to the sidelines during the pandemic. 

“Climate change discussions and legislation kind of got put on the backburner during the pandemic,” Caddick said. “Now, we can start bringing those conversations back to the table, and make up for lost time.”