By Pilar Ceniceroz, Environmental Science and Management ‘21
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this piece for a UWP104E assignment. However, the topic remains relevant to people all around the world. In the past, it has been hard to visualize our individual impacts on the environment. COVID-19 has become a great example of how behavioral changes can drastically transform our surroundings. I would like my readers to understand the power of unity in the face of what might be the next global crisis, climate change.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency on January 30th 2020, the world has seen extreme changes as the daily lifestyle of almost everyone in the world has been rapidly altered . The ongoing effort to slow the spread of the virus while sheltering-in-place has not been without sacrifice—countless people lost their jobs, most cannot physically go to school, and everyday activities have been significantly modified. However, this halt of “business as usual” has fascinating impacts on the environment. Stay-at-home orders shut down production in industrial facilities and power plants and minimized personal vehicle use . With a major decrease in economic activity, highly polluted cities around the world are now seeing clearer skies. The seemingly dull, repetitive routine of quarantine life has allowed the environment to flourish.While consequences of COVID-19 include global economic devastation, the environment has seen both indirect positive and negative impacts as a result of stay-at-home orders and the declining economy. Regions with COVID-19 restrictions experienced a decrease in air and water pollution. These restrictions included a stop to nonessential work and travel as well as closing of restaurants and bars. Concurrently, the amount of single use products has significantly increased to limit the spread of the virus. Decreasing air pollution is a major milestone for our modern world, however, as the world returns to normal life, pollution levels will follow. Although a short term decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not a sustainable way to support the environment, communities around the globe have witnessed the instantaneous impacts of our everyday habits on the environment due to COVID-19.
Drop in Atmospheric and Water Pollution
Today, 91% of the world population lives in places where poor air quality exceeds the permissible limits set by the WHO . Air quality is an important contributor to human health and living in an area with poor air quality can exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19. According to the 2016 WHO report, air pollution contributes to 8% of total deaths in the world . Countries that normally struggle with unhealthy air, such as China, USA, Italy, and Spain, have since seen clearer skies for the first time in decades after taking aggressive measures to slow the spread of the virus. There has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of CO2, NO2, and particulate matter emitted in China with the halt of industrial operations with the decrease in demand for coal and crude oil (see fig. 1) .
Changes in nitrogen dioxide emission levels in China from before and after lockdown.
Fig. 1. Zambrano-Monserrate, Manuel A., et al. “Indirect Effects of COVID-19 on the Environment.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 20 Apr. 2020, p. 138813., doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138813.
Since this same time last year, air pollution levels have dropped 50% in New York . There has been a 25% decrease in air pollution since the start of this year in China, one of the largest manufacturing countries . The closing of factories contributed to a 40% reduction in coal usage at one of China’s largest power plants . The average coal consumption of power plants has reached its lowest point in the past four years . Clearly, the outbreak has improved short term air quality and has contributed to reducing global carbon emissions. Fewer flights and social distancing guidelines have reduced carbon emissions as well as other forms of pollution. Tourism significantly decreased worldwide, and beaches around the world have been cleaned up. For example, citizens of Venice, Italy were amazed to see crystalline waters and healthy fish in their canals .
Comparison of air quality in some of the biggest cities around the world before the COVID-19 pandemic and while the lockdown.
Fig. 2. Saadat, Saeida., et al. “Environmental Perspective of COVID-19.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 22 April 2020, p. 138870., doi:10.1016/j.scitptenv.2020.139815.
Increased Single Use Plastics
In order to completely analyze the impact of COVID-19 on environmental health, the negative impacts on the environment from the virus are equally as important as the positive effects. Although travel restrictions have led to less pollution caused by tourism, the amount of single use plastics and medical equipment has significantly increased waste around the world. In the USA, there has been a significant increase in the amount of single-use personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves .
Imagine the amount of trash created when millions of people use one or a couple of masks daily, single use gloves and hand sanitizers. With a population of eleven million people, the city of Wuhan produced an average of 200 tons of clinical trash on any single day in February 2020, compared to their previous average of fifty tons per day . This number is four times the amount the city’s only dedicated facility can incinerate per day .
The demand for plastics has increased as consumers move to online purchasing. Shelter-in-place guidelines established in most countries have driven consumers to increase their demand for online orders and home delivery .The increasing demand for shipping and packaging greatly increases the amount of waste produced as well as GHG emissions with increased activity in supply lines. Out of concern of spreading the virus through the plastic surfaces in recycling centers, some cities stopped their recycling programs in the U.S. . Additionally, in some of these cities, citizens are not allowed to use reusable bags at grocery stores. Similarly, some European cities have seen restrictions within waste management. Italy has prohibited infected residents from sorting their personal household waste . Industries have repealed the disposable bag bans, many have switched to single-use packaging, and online food ordering has increased in popularity . The consumption of single use plastics has skyrocketed to limit transmission [1, 3]. Suspension of sustainable waste management practices potentially escalate environmental pollution.
Medical wastes generated during COVID-19 pandemic in the environment.
Fig. 3. Saadat, Saeida., et al. “Environmental Perspective of COVID-19.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 22 April 2020, p. 138870., doi:10.1016/j.scitptenv.2020.139815.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Over the last few months, people were enamoured by the modern-day pollution that vanished before their eyes. Strict stay-at-home orders decreased the amount of air and water pollution in otherwise unhealthy cities. Contrarily, the considerable increase in single use plastics may have a lasting negative impact on the environment. Although these outcomes may be hard to compare in magnitude, they help put into perspective the larger picture. Short term change is not a sustainable way to clean up the environment especially when it occurs alongside economic devastation. Before the pandemic, individual action against climate change felt like an abstract idea, out of reach due to its lack of immediacy. Now, the world has seen changes to our environment from worldwide behavior. Visible skies and vibrant waterways are distinguishable changes that are legitimate grounds to build momentum and take action for a healthier future. Although the pandemic may not have a drastic impact on the future of the environment itself due to conflicting effects, it can instigate discussion to improve personal actions that impact the environment. Long-term structural change and individual behavior changes are critical in combating environmental pollution. Moving forward, it is imperative that the unification of collective conscious behavior be a driving force to combat climate change. If neglected, climate change is likely to take many lives in the future, portraying this pandemic as a minor devastation. Let the urgency of our united global response to COVID-19 influence our future response to the next global crisis; climate change.
 Saadat, Saeida., et al. “Environmental Perspective of COVID-19.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 22 April 2020, p. 138870., doi:10.1016/j.scitptenv.2020.139815.
 Wang, Qiang, and Min Su. “A Preliminary Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Environment – A Case Study of China.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 22 Apr. 2020, p. 138915., doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138915.
 Zambrano-Monserrate, Manuel A., et al. “Indirect Effects of COVID-19 on the Environment.” Science of The Total Environment, vol. 728, 20 Apr. 2020, p. 138813., doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138813.