Lately, I’ve been wondering about the effects the pandemic has had on our environment. I’ve wondered seriously enough to search for professional journal articles specifically on this subject. What I found was mostly narrative, which disappointed me, as I had hoped to sustain my impressions with some facts.
We’ve all seen the stories about nature reclaiming public spaces in the absence of people. Co-existing are stories about the air being cleaner due to the curtailing of airline travel, and maybe even travel by car. Smog seems to be lifting. Water seems clearer. Fish are teaming where only snorkelers were crowding the waters only months ago, in places such as Kapalua Beach on Maui. Turtles have been able to complete their reproductive cycles without interfering crowds and lights near the beaches that line our coasts. Yes, it seems that having people stay home during the pandemic has had some much needed environmental benefits.
However, I started thinking deeper. Literally, and figuratively, deeper about waste. To decrease transmission of the virus, many eating establishments were offering curbside take out. Great! But, obviously, they are doing so by using disposable containers. Not so great, unfortunately. How much has the consumption of food from styrofoam, plastic, and paper containers increased since March? It is a fact that single-use plastics, including PVC and polystyrene, have increased during this time.
A return to single-use plastic was not given a second thought when we prioritized health and hygiene over environmental implications. Disposable does not mean degradable.
Medical waste has also had a great increase since the pandemic started. Testing kits are plastic, one-time use, and disposable. Personal protective equipment in the medical field is one-time use after contact with a single patient. I know what this looks like after working in hospitals with other infectious disease outbreaks. I was working at my first job in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital when we had a MRSA outbreak. And, again, when we had a para-flu outbreak (which I contracted and ended up in the hospital myself) at the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. Health care workers are used to a good deal of medical waste that ensures they are doing their jobs properly, protecting their patients, and protecting themselves.
But, on this scale? The world over? If you want an idea of what I am talking about all you have to do is read the beginning of this article I found once I started writing my blog today. The title says it all: PLASTIC PANIC IN THE PANDEMIC: HOW SINGLE-USE ITEMS MEANT TO PROTECT US WILL HARM THE PLANET by Zach Fishman, June 20, 2020, in the Medill Reports.
The waste generated from the pandemic is a huge concern now and in its aftermath for those of us already concerned with the state of our environment on the planet, not just the United States. We are no longer hearing of climate and pollution problems that all of us will continue to face after COVID-19 has abated. And, this is very worrisome to me as a human, a mother, and an environmental educator.
There’s been a push to keep our small businesses open by visiting them for curbside pick up but what is the real cost? The cost that will be incurred later when our rivers, oceans, and beaches – places you love to visit – are teeming with the waste generated by this pandemic!
I urge you to think creatively about how you can still support our businesses without generating more waste. For example, we have been getting take out pizza weekly since the pandemic started. It comes with minimal packaging because you need to bake and eat it at home.
And, you know those plastic bags in the fruit and vegetable aisle at the grocery store that are harder to open now because you have your mask on and cannot lick your fingers to help you open the bag to insert your produce? I suggest you do not use the bag or bring your own reusable bag if the store allows.
All I am saying is that yes, the pandemic is a problem now. Yes, it has spurred the return liberal use of plastics, somewhat out of necessity. But, we are generating a great deal of waste in fighting this disease. This WILL be a bigger problem in the future than it is now. And we should be ready to fight for the earth, next.