The environment has been struggling with an increase in greenhouse gasses, pollution, rising temperatures, and many other negative impacts prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, there have been both beneficial and harmful changes throughout the course of the past few months as the pandemic has spread throughout the world.
For one, air quality has improved greatly in many areas. Harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM 2.5) have diminished. Nitrogen dioxide moves into the air through the burning of fuel, while particulate matter are particles that have gotten into the air from construction sites, unpaved roads, and fires. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites have reported a 22.8 microgram per cubic meter decrease of NO2 in China as a result of strict quarantine guidelines. Another decrease in NO2 has been shown from the Sentinel-5P Precursor satellite in the first few European cities to apply quarantine guidelines, such as Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Similarly, a European Union monitoring service, Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) has detected a sharp decrease of 20% to 30% in PM 2.5 emissions in most parts of China. This has been an unexpected positive impact of COVID-19 globally because 4.6 million people die annually from air pollution.
In contrast, beaches around the world have become cleaner as visits to the beach have since ceased due to social distancing measures. In the beginning of quarantine, beaches such as those in Barcelona, Spain, and Mexico have appeared to be cleaner with an absence of the usual littering and more visible waters. However, it only took about a month to see the negative impacts. As people have not discarded their masks properly, many have been collecting in the ocean before washing up on the shore. Countless discarded single-use masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer bottles have been found lying on the coasts of multiple countries. According to a 2018 United Nations Environment estimate, thirteen million tons of plastic has found its way into the ocean each year. Because masks can be mistaken as food and smaller marine life can become tangled in the straps of masks, this poses a new and alarming form of pollution to be aware of.
Lastly, there has been a dramatic increase in waste. Through the increasing use of online purchasing and home delivery, household waste has surged. More packaging has been used to transport goods to homes, therefore increasing inorganic waste. Hospital waste has also increased. In Wuhan, China, hospitals used to produce less than 50 tons of waste per day, whereas, since the COVID-19 outbreak, over 230 metric tons of hospital waste are thrown out each day. With an increase of waste, there is a decrease in recycling, which directly adds to environmental issues such as soil erosion and deforestation.
Massachusetts officials have recognized this problem and have created a reopening plan that has taken all of these concerns into account. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts has established rules regarding sustainability which included restarting the redemption of plastic bottles and cans as well as placing fees on single-use plastic shopping bags in certain cities. Moreover, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has decided to lift the ban on reusable shopping bags. The ban was issued at first to help inhibit the spread of COVID-19 because having multiple people touching the same bag was unsafe as it increases potential contact with the virus.
Although these are steps in the right direction, it is important to be conscious of the environmental impacts of the pandemic and to put effort into helping the environment. Concord Academy has sustainability goals to reduce food waste, reduce on-campus greenhouse gases, and overall waste. With this in mind, be sure to properly dispose of all masks to avoid contributing to the COVID-19 environmental pollution. Cutting off the straps of a mask before disposal will further help prevent the entanglement of sea life in case the mask ends up in the ocean. And finally, try to recycle frequently, travel in sustainable ways if possible, and stay safe.