COVID-19, Decrease Air pollution, Worsen the Global Plastic Waste

Monday, July 6, 2020 - 16:06

Obviously, our planet Earth has caught a break with the COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis, which slows down the speed the speed of life.

According to an ISCA report, Government policies during the COVID-19 pandemic have drastically altered patterns of energy demand around the world. Reduction in air travel, less travel by road and the lockdown could slow the effects of climate change so that nature is recovering while humanity stays at home.

Since the pandemic began, many international borders were closed and populations were confined to their homes, which reduced transport and changed consumption patterns. The temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement.

Based on the research, “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement”, published in Nature Climate Change, daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport.

At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average. The impact on 2020 annual emissions depends on the duration of the confinement, with a low estimate of –4% (–2 to –7%) if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June, and a high estimate of –7% (–3 to –13%) if some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of 2020. Government actions and economic incentives post-crisis will likely influence the global CO2 emissions path for decades.

The CO2 emissions and human mobility have been reduced, which improves air quality and encourages wild animals to come out and explore the cities. But here is the question that how sustainable is this positive effect in the long term?

Scientists have confirmed that air quality in certain regions has improved in recent weeks. As industries, aviation, and other means of transportation stop, air pollution is reduced countries severely affected by the virus.

According to Steven Davis, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, in recent years, we have generated around 500 tons of CO2 per $1 million of the world’s GDP. In 2019, 40 billion tons of CO2 were emitted per $88 billion of the world’s GDP. If this correlation persists, a decrease of the world’s GDP due to the imminent economic recession might generate a reduction in the global CO2 emissions in a similar proportion, One Young World reports.

Furthermore, Randolph Bell, Director of the Global Energy Center, explained in the Atlantic Council that the economic recession linked by the virus is likely to cause a drop in the carbon dioxide emissions for this year. He indicated that NASA’s satellite images have evidenced the pollution reduction in China right after the carbon emissions had dropped by 25% in four weeks of lockdown.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is another epidemic. In the Mediterranean, 570,000 tons of plastic are dumped each year, the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles every minute, according to WWF.

According to a WWF report, "if just 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in as many as 10 million masks per month polluting the environment."

"Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams, this would result in the dispersion of more than 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature," the report stipulated.

Plastic is still the most reliable and affordable solution for personal protection. Unless technological advances introduce better alternatives, we will need a systems-level approach from companies and governments on a global scale to address the issue of plastic and protect our environment.

According to the Hong Kong-based NGO OceansAsia, approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide every year, with more than 8 million entering oceans annually- ultimately threatening the ecosystems of marine wildlife. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further exacerbate the scourge of plastic pollution.

Both face masks and hand sanitizer production include the use of plastic. Face masks typically contain polypropylene (PP), which, due to the microfibers’ hydrophobic composition, acts as a protective layer against bodily fluid droplets. Other more intricate and expensive face masks include polyurethane (PUR) and/or polyacrylonitrile (PAN).

Joffrey Peltier, member of the environmental organisation Opération Mer Propre in France, came across large quantities of latex gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in the Mediterranean Sea upon exploration.

Regarded as ‘COVID waste’, Peltier worries that this discovery indicates a new kind of pollution that adds to the already existing plastic problem, further threatening the environment.

As short-term solutions, labels on disposable items, making information on littering and how to recycle more available to the public and potentially designing more eye-catching and ‘fun’ refuse bins to encourage interaction.

Wearing reusable face masks, disposing of single-use face masks correctly and buying hand sanitizer contained in ecologically sustainable packaging are also here-and-now factors to consider.

In the long term, the COVID-19 pandemic will offer lessons and opportunities leading to environmental action. For instance, we will have a new baseline of what can be achieved digitally: remote work, education, shopping, and more. In addition, as our governments, private institutions, and even social media succeed in partnering, we will possibly feel more capable of tackling other pressing issues such as climate change.

Obviously, the pandemic has had positive and negative consequences for the environment so far. Human actions taken during the pandemic sometimes benefit the ecosystems through reducing emissions and fossil gas consumption. On the other hand, it is undeniable that a crisis is looming, the plastic that gets pushed out now will pollute the planet for decades.

By: Gelareh Khademvesal


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