Though we’re still in the midst of this crazy pandemic, enough time has passed for us to be able to take stock and pick through the good from the bad. While it might seem like eons ago, at the height of lockdown many of us were noticing positive environmental impacts as a direct result of billions of people ceasing all activity. As we cheered for our local wildlife and breathed in fresh air, a more silent, not so positive side of this pandemic was growing – disposable everything.

We thought it would be interesting to assess the effects COVID has had on the environment, both positive and negative, and really notice just how impactful our collective actions are when it comes to the health of our planet.

 

Positive Effects

Less Travel

International flights all but came to a screeching halt in March, with airports becoming no man’s land overnight. Aside from just air travel, tourist trains, busses, and boats also ceased operating, creating a ripple effect around the globe. With travel having become so accessible and commonplace these days, it’s easy to not consider just how transient of a society we are, and only once that movement ebbs do we really notice the impact.

Some examples of the positive impact the reduction of travel has had on the environment include Venice’s canal water going from murky to clear from reduced tourist boat traffic, mobs of monkeys and deer venturing into empty streets in Thailand and Japan, where they’d otherwise be crammed with tourists, satellite images from NASA showing significant drops in pollution across both China and Italy – two countries that were hit the hardest in the early days of the pandemic.

It’s no secret that lockdown and the reduction of travel have significantly impacted the environment, giving the lungs of our earth a second to breathe easy. While things have begun going back to normal, travel is still at an all-time low, so here’s hoping the earth can regain some balance before the floodgates reopen.

Less Emissions

Aside from travel, one of the most notable changes to occur was the significant drop in emissions. With almost no one on the roads as commuters were stuck working from home, the daily output of car emissions had a hugely positive impact on the air and environment, globally. In fact, New York City saw a decrease of around 50% of carbon monoxide emissions due to the ultra-low traffic levels, a city that normally has exceptionally high carbon monoxide numbers.

Many factories and plants in China were forced to shut down as well, causing a 25% decrease in emissions, as well as a 40% decrease in coal usage.

A city in northern India was in complete awe by the fact that they could finally see the Himalayan mountain range after 30 years. Lockdown significantly reduced air pollution emissions, dropping these levels to their lowest in the city of Jalandhar.

While these numbers are mostly temporary, the months of reduced traffic and emissions have definitely been a positive and welcome change, showing us how quickly nature reverts back.

 

Negative Effects

More Packaging and Disposables

While the above-mentioned changes have been positive, we can’t ignore the growing heaps of plastics and disposables that the virus has encouraged. With safety measures in check, masks, gloves, mini hand sanitizer bottles and PPE in general are all but littering the streets we walk on, not to mention the more immediate concern of our oceans and beaches having become mask dumping zones. Those in the sustainability space had finally made some headway with encouraging reusables in place of single-use plastic, only for this pandemic to negate the action that had been taken.

According to UNCTAD, global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to skyrocket from $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020. And this is only face masks…

Packaging in general has increased heavily, whenever we order from restaurants, or grocery shop. The self-serve bakery aisles now only offer pre-packaged goods, and tons of produce is now being wrapped in plastic and also on a Styrofoam tray instead of being sold naked, further adding to our impact when we grocery shop.

Bulk stores that were becoming hugely popular have been forced to change operations, and eating in at a restaurant has changed to takeout, meaning a huge uptick in Styrofoam and single-use plastic that are massively detrimental to our earth. Let’s also not forget sanitary wipes! These disinfectant sheets cannot be recycled or are they biodegradable, as they are made from a blend of polyester and paper. They’re hugely problematic for the environment, and cause major issues for sewage systems.

More Online Shopping

With the majority of people at home and wanting to shop in the safest way possible, online ordering has seen a giant increase. In fact, for Canadians, online shopping has doubled during the pandemic, as retail sales fell by 17.9%. With all the online shopping comes tons of wasteful, single-use plastic and packaging that would have been avoided had we been shopping traditionally in retail stores. This goes for clothing and home goods, as much as it does for groceries, which has become a big trend as a result of the pandemic.

Product Returns

With the surge in online shopping, returns are an inevitable part of that process. Product returns, while seemingly harmless, are actually a hugely wasteful and detrimental aspect of consumerism, especially in the fashion industry. In a normal year, product returns generate 15 million metric tons of carbon. With the pandemic and the increase in buying online, stores are facing a mega challenge, namely trying to resell returned merchandise, as well as finding enough workers to help process returns in distribution centers.  It might seem odd that consumers are buying apparel, seeing as we have nowhere to go, but while the dip down in clothing sales was felt initially, things are changing as brands are offering deep discounts in hopes to generate sales. Furthermore, boredom and emotional distress often lead to “retail therapy” so seasonal changes mean new items. It also means buying to try – multiple colours and sizes so a consumer can choose at home, with the intention of returning the rest. But that returned merchandise is often too costly to re-sell, and usually only a pathetic 10% of product is ever actually resold. It goes to landfill (yes, really!), as it’s cheaper for a brand to discard than to have an employee check each item to make sure it is in re-sell condition, hasn’t been tampered with, and is up to code. Clothing has to be ironed and re-packed, and for most brands, it’s just not worth it.

 

How can you reduce your COVID impact?

  • Think twice before you buy: instead of contributing to the awful stats on product returns, think hard before deciding to buy something, and make sure it’s something you need and will use
  • If possible, try to shop at a retail store in person, rather than online. By doing this, you lower your carbon footprint, help a retail store stay open, and reduce the packaging that is involved in online sales. Also, you can try on items at the store, reducing your need to return them
  • Where possible, bring your own reusable tote bag and produce bag to the grocery store, to reduce as much plastic packaging as possible
  • Shop small: supporting small businesses is vital in ensuring our local economy thrives, and the people of our communities are taken care of. While adding to cart on Amazon is easy and mindless, try to support a small business. They need our support, make real effort in reducing wastage (they can’t afford to send goods to landfill), and generally are more sustainable in their business efforts than the giants out there
  • This goes without saying but don’t litter and pick up after yourself! If you use disposable PPE, throw it in a proper garbage, and don’t drop them in parking lots and parks. Also, cut the loops of your masks before disposing of them, so that when they do enter our environment, animal and marine life won’t get stuck

 

Assessing consumer behaviour and the effects it has on the world around us is interesting and insightful, helping us see how we can create change to support the environment better. A little bit goes a long way!

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