In a matter of months, COVID-19 has turned society on its head. The pandemic is changing the world in ways experts are only beginning to understand. Among these changes, we’ve seen the environmental impact of the virus. As humans adapt to the new status quo, the planet is beginning to transform as well.
With that in mind, what’s been the positive impact of COVID-19 for the planet, and what are its negative implications?
COVID-19’s Positive Environmental Impact
As terrible as the coronavirus has been for the economy and general population, it’s been beneficial to the environment in multiple ways. From reducing air and noise pollution to keeping beaches free of beer bottles, COVID-19 has actually had huge positive impacts on the planet.
1. A Drop in Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Within the past couple of months, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 4.6%, making it the most dramatic drop in human history.
Many different factors lead to this sudden decrease. For one, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have reduced the number of cars on the road. As businesses closed, people began working from home, and many continue to do so to this day. Of course, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter means cleaner air for everyone.
Economic restrictions and less demand for energy have also played a major role in reducing air pollution.
Power plants, which rely on coal and fossil fuels, aren’t running at high capacity as before, pushing the global coal demand down by 8% and minimizing emissions. Meanwhile, renewables have experienced a surge in popularity, making record-high contributions to electricity generation in many countries, including the U.S.
2. Less Tourist Trash
The coronavirus pandemic has caused many countries — including Canada, Honduras, Indonesia, India and South Africa — to completely close their borders to foreign travellers.
A multitude of other countries, like the U.S., are partially closed depending on the traveler’s citizenship, origin and other regulations.
With so many travel bans in effect, popular tourist destinations, many of which include beaches, have closed or rarely seen any foot traffic.
Consequently, there has been a reduction in trash and littering on coastlines around the world. For example, beaches in Spain, Ecuador and Mexico now have crystal clear waters and sandy beaches free of glass, plastic and other trash.
Of course, less garbage makes for a cleaner, safer and healthier environment for marine life and animals like turtles, seagulls and crustaceans that call the sand their home.
3. Environmental Noise Reduction
Likewise, noise levels have dropped significantly in recent months. Much of this reduction in noise pollution is due to the lack of tourists as well. Additionally, since fewer buses, trains and other modes of public transportation are operating right now, urban neighborhoods and city streets that would otherwise be noisy are quiet.
While this may be a welcome relief to city dwellers, wildlife can also benefit.
Loud noises from boats, cars and shouting humans alter the acoustic environment and force animals out of their habitats. This noise pollution can also make it difficult for them to find food, detect predators, locate mates and even reproduce. However, since things have been quieter, many animals have returned to their natural habitats and begun restoring their ecosystems.
Negative Environmental Repercussions of COVID-19
Naturally, the pandemic doesn’t come without its repercussions. Aside from the obvious toll the virus has had on human populations, COVID-19 has created a slew of waste management issues and hindered the environment’s ability to thrive in major ways.
1. Halted Recycling Programs
One of the biggest ways the virus has affected the environment is through the forced shutdown of recycling programs and centers.
In the European nations and many U.S. states, authorities have closed recycling centers and restricted operations for fear of spreading the virus through recycled items. Thus, many people have resorted to tossing recyclables in with their trash. Eventually, some of these paper and plastic products will end up in both land and ocean habitats, polluting the environment and destroying wildlife populations.
Boaters’ inability to recycle is also affecting the state of our oceans. Many wastewater treatment plants that recycle and repurpose marine waste are also floundering under economic burdens. As a result, many boaters illegally dump this waste into the ocean for lack of a better — or more convenient — place to put it.
2. An Increase in Waste
Disposable masks and an increase in single-use items aren’t helping the situation, either. For example, instead of donning reusable cloth masks, many opt to wear single-use face masks and even plastic gloves daily.
Often, these materials end up on sidewalks, beaches and, eventually, natural ecosystems. Disposable masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are even turning up on the beaches of uninhabited islands miles from the mainland.
In fact, if you visit the areas surrounding your local park or mall, you can probably already find disposable masks and gloves littered all over the place.
If you’d like to help reduce waste from disposable face masks, you could consider purchasing or even making your own reusable cloth mask that can be reused over and over.
However, an increase in litter from single-use masks isn’t the only problem.
A surge in takeout orders and temporary bans on reusable shopping bags and coffee cups are also negatively impacting the environment. Producing many of these disposable items — like plastic cutlery — indirectly damages the planet already. Now, people have no choice but to use them yet have nowhere to recycle them.
3. Harmful Wastewater Treatments
Coronavirus in wastewater is relatively short-lived as the virus breaks down within two to three days. Moreover, researchers haven’t detected COVID-19 in drinking water. Still, many countries fear their treatment methods are insufficient in effectively defending against widespread infection. Some treatment facilities are finding and implementing alternative methods.
For instance, China has asked water treatment plants to strengthen disinfection routines. Typically, doing so involves treating the water with higher concentrations of chlorine. China already has a history of allowing nitrosodimethylamine, a carcinogenic byproduct of the chlorination process, into tap water. Now, amid a pandemic, researchers have detected residual chlorine in 147 water sources. Although levels were lower than the quality standard, it wouldn’t take much for chlorine levels to rise to unsafe conditions.
Facing the Long-Term Implications
While the coronavirus has had some positive impacts on the environment, these improvements aren’t likely to last in the long run.
For example, the minimal amount of vehicles on the road and planes in the sky right now has done wonders for reducing air pollution like particulate matter and greenhouse gases. However, as soon as businesses reopen at full capacity and travel bans lift, transportation will take off at full speed again, and air quality will suffer.
Likewise, clean beaches and a lack of tourists won’t last forever. Rather, the immense amount of PPE waste and other garbage will likely wash up on shores worldwide for many years.
Moreover, this debris will likely line the bottom of the ocean and float on the water’s surface for a long time, leaching toxic chemicals into marine ecosystems and killing wildlife. Thus, the negative effects will far outweigh the positive and have long-term implications for the environment.
If you’d like to learn more ways to reduce your impact on the environment during the pandemic and beyond, do some research. Check out the available resources to find out more about the coronavirus, including related safety protocols, global updates and more. You can always read articles and updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for up-to-date information.
What Can You Do to Help?
Scientists fear that, by the time governments lift travel bans and life returns to normal, people will be so eager to get out and go places that climate change will worsen even faster than before. Of course, it’s too soon to know if this gloomy prediction will prove true. However, whether it comes to fruition is irrelevant in terms of your personal responsibility to protect the environment.
So what can you do to help? You might begin by limiting your use of single-use items like grocery bags, coffee cups and takeout containers and cutlery. You should also consider purchasing or making your own reusable mask to prevent disposable ones from littering the oceans and land. As travel bans lift, consider vacationing close to home and carpooling with co-workers, friends and family whenever you can.
With a little luck — and some effort on your part — the planet may have a fighting chance.
About the Author: Oscar Collins