The Unseen Environmental Effects of COVID-19

By: NATALIA PATTERSON

When one thinks of the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, what immediately comes to mind are the millions of cases, deaths, and the struggling economy. However, not many realize that the pandemic has also affected the environment. Nevertheless, changes caused by lockdowns and health restrictions have had both significant positive and negative environmental impacts. The more we become aware of them, the better we may be able to reduce the negative effects and maximize the positives, as well as find small adjustments to benefit the environment that we can bring into our regular lifestyles once the pandemic ends.

If you have spent any time outside your home recently, you likely have noticed that disposable face masks have been added to the regular litter you see on the streets. Due to this, face masks have also appeared in the oceans in quite large quantities. OceanAsia, a marine conservation organization, estimates that 1.56 billion face masks, equivalent to about 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution, entered the oceans in the year of 2020. The organization started noticing these face masks washing up on the shore only 6 weeks after the start of the pandemic, indicating the extent to which people have been littering them from the beginning. OceanAsia estimates that it will take 300 to 400 years for the plastic these masks contain to fully break down, which means that they will stay in the marine environment and continue to pollute it long after the pandemic is over.

Despite its negative effects, the lockdown has had some positive effects on the environment as well, including the drop of greenhouse gas emissions. During the months of the pandemic, the United States saw a 12% drop in carbon emissions, with a 7% decrease globally. In addition, research conducted by Columbia University showed that the amount of carbon monoxide being released by cars and trucks in New York has decreased by 50% from the start of the lockdown. This change also reduced water pollution, and researchers have found that, in a section of the Hudson River, the level of turbidity decreased by about 40%.

Based on what we now know about pollution that the pandemic both causes and reduces, we can use this information to adjust our habits to be more environmentally friendly. For example, the pandemic’s effect on air pollution shows that, if more people worked from home, carbon emissions could be reduced if people continued working remotely even after the pandemic. In fact, in a survey conducted by getAbstract, 43% of workers answered that, after the pandemic, they want to work from home more often than they did before the pandemic. According to the Center for Ecotechnology, President of the Global Workplace Analytics Kate Lister has stated, “There is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel…The annual environmental impact of half-time remote work (for those who both want to work remotely and have a compatible job) would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire NY State workforce off the road.”

In order to minimize waste due to face masks, one can buy reusable masks rather than disposable ones. In fact, less pollution is not the only benefit of a reusable mask. Since they can be washed and worn as many times as needed, in the long run, obtaining a reusable mask may actually save money. In addition, healthcare workers are in need of disposable face masks. In Italy, over 4,000 healthcare workers became infected with COVID due to the shortage of single-use masks. Also, if you are wearing a disposable mask, make sure to throw it away, along with your other trash, to prevent litter. If, during just this year, face masks could litter the oceans to such an extent, the benefits could be just as great if everyone disposed of all their garbage responsibly.

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