Quarantine going green


Photo by Jake Pizzi

Personal protective equipment poses a risk to natural environments if not disposed of correctly. The United Nations estimated that around 75 percent of used masks are expected to end up in landfills or floating in the seas.

Sydney Chin, Section Editor

Throughout the past six months, COVID-19 has helped improve the environment around the world. However, the short term benefits, like better air quality and reduced carbon emissions, may do little to nothing for our climate as a whole.

Ever since COVID-19 began to spread across the globe in December 2019, millions have been forced to stay at home. While humanity has been quarantining, factories have halted production, travel has been banned, and schools have been closed.

 This decrease in activity has led to a decrease in carbon emissions – a driving factor of global warming. Carbon emissions can be produced by factors such as burning fossil fuels, electricity production, transportation. 

“I feel like I have been more sustainable since quarantine,” said junior Sydney Wimer. “I am driving less and producing less waste. Being confined in my house has also given me time to take up new hobbies like gardening.”

 The United in Science 2020 report by the World Meteorological Organization has found that daily greenhouse gas emissions in April 2020 were 17 percent lower than in 2019. This is roughly equivalent to the emissions seen in 2006. Overall, they estimate that the 2020 global emissions will decline by 4 to 7 percent compared to 2019.

The minimal decline in emissions has contributed to less air pollution and clearer skies in busy cities. Densely populated Chinese cities, often known for their high levels of air pollution and dense smog, have seen a general increase in air quality. In China’s Hubei province, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment has found that the number of good quality air days increased by 21.5 percent in February compared to last year. In the U.S, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota has discovered a decrease in quantities of air pollutants as well. 

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has estimated that this temporary improvement in air quality in 12 major cities has saved about 15,000 lives. 

In addition to cleaner air, the world’s change in behavior has created other short term environmental impacts. Venice’s Grand Canal saw a drastic decrease in boat traffic which caused rare crystal clear waters (eyewitnesses even report being able to see fish in some canals). In India, the Himalayan Mountains could be seen from 100 miles away, which has not happened in decades.

Although it may seem like the Coronavirus pandemic has changed the environment for the better, it turns out that these short term effects may have little effect on the environment and climate long term. While air pollution has decreased, it is already starting to return to pre-pandemic levels as people around the world are returning to a degree of normality. Also, the decline in carbon emissions has done nothing to stop the steadily increasing global temperature. 

“2016-2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas. “This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated.” 

This grace period for the environment might also have unintentional negative consequences. The number of consumable plastics is rising due to the influx of need for take-out, sanitary products, and masks. Single-use masks and latex gloves have already been found building up in trash piles in oceans. Additionally, these masks and sanitary products are considered medical waste and they cannot be recycled. These new pollutants are only exacerbating the ocean’s trash problem. 

“I’ve seen a used disposable mask hanging from a tree branch and a few lying on the road,” expressed junior Teji Kari. “I think COVID-19 will impact the environment long term because disposable face masks are causing more garbage.”

For Florida, this may mean more pollution in our local lakes and canals. Local supermarkets have banned shoppers from using their reusable bags for the health risk they present. Instead, they use plastic bags. The plastic bags are recyclable, but only in designated bins at the store. Moreover, the beach may be cleaner due to quarantine, but this effect is only temporary as tourists start to flock to popular cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how much influence humans truly have on their environment. Several months of staying at home have shown to be highly effective in decreasing greenhouse gasses, but it would take years of dramatic reductions in emissions for this to be impactful long term. If anything, this pandemic should remind us how our species has the power to impact the environment. Climate change is still occurring, and it is vital as a planet to keep working for a more sustainable future.