Covid 19 - Humans 0 : Environment 1
Alongside the devastation of the Covid 19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns – sickness, death, loss, isolation, anxiety, depression and economic uncertainty, we have all seen the good news stories of environment recovery.
Crystal clear waters in Venice.
Turtles hatching from their eggs in peace and successfully making it into the sea in enormous numbers in India, Brazil, Florida and many other places.
Dramatic photos of clean air in places which have only known smog for decades have been circulating the internet.
And closer to home, Goats have reclaimed a village in Wales, and Deer a housing estate in London.
This is all so amazing. It really shows us how nature and the environment can fight back in a relatively short space of time.
And if you top that with a look a drops in Carbon Emissions, and whilst the Coronavirus has been harmful to humans, it does start to look like the environment has benefited hugely. According to The Guardian, CO2 emissions in China fell by an estimated 25% during its February lockdown. And India recorded its first ever annual emissions fall for the year ending March, and is expected to show a 30% drop in emissions for April. So this is all good news for the environment right?
The questions I keep asking myself though are: But what next? Will the environment be better off after the lockdown ends? What path will we all choose going forward?
Two Areas of Environmental Concern
There are two areas environmental impact that I mainly concerned about during and post this pandemic: plastic pollution and carbon emissions.
1. Plastic Pollution
Plastic Pollution Pre-Pandemic
Pre-pandemic, so many great strides were being made both at an individual or societal level, and at a company and governmental level around single use plastics.
We were all horrified and embarrassed by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series at how much waste we producing on a daily basis. We were given a wake up call that this needed to stop. Now. And at wonderfully rapid pace, changes were made – take away coffee cups a no-no – social pressure meant we brought our own; commitments by supermarkets to drastically reduce their single use plastic packaging – Iceland committed to totally remove plastic packaging by 2023; Waitrose trialled going packaging free.
On a personal level, I’d worked really hard to reduce our single use, non-recyclable plastic purchases to a bare minimum, through a well thought-out combination of deliveries from Riverford, Milk & More, Ocado & Whole Foods; plus shopping in person at the local Cavan Bakery on the High Street and asking for only paper bags; and going to Sandy’s Fishmongers in Twickenham and sometimes The Teddington Cheese and bringing my own containers.
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✨ CONTENTED EARTH 🌍 ✨ Plastic Free Grocery Shopping 🛒 I’ve grown up in a time when grocery shopping was all about convenience. Yes, I do remember my mum going to the local Green-Grocers on the high street regularly. But the bulk of what we bought was done at the supermarket, under one roof. We loaded up the trolley with everything we needed, and took it all home in our car. 🛒 As I continue my journey towards plastic free living, my shopping has become a bit more complicated. Essentially it looks something a bit like this: 🛒 1. Weekly - Home delivery of fruit, veg, eggs and occasionally meat (though this is not plastic free) from @riverford 2. Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays - Home delivery of milk from @milkandmore; plus now cheddar cheese (as it’s the only place I’ve found that delivers totally plastic free cheese - they are wrapped in wax); plus when we run out, they are great for some plastic free, organic fruit and veg 3. A couple of times a week - buy bread from @thecavanbakery; I ask for it sliced, but remind them only to use a paper bag. 4. Ad Hoc - 1. @ocadouk for tins, jars, always opting for the (most) plastic-free option; and cereal (though I’ve only found @duchyoriginal porridge oats that are fully plastic free for now) 2. Go to @wholefoodsuk to pick up nuts, grains and coffee from their bulk goods section - either remembering to bring my own cloth bags, or use the paper ones they provide 5. Very occasionally - take my own containers to: 1. the @teddington_cheese in Richmond 2. Sandy’s Fishmongers in Twickenham 3. The Twickenham Farmers’ Market 🛒 Phew!! 🛒 Very much not all under one roof. A LOT more work involved. A lot more thought, and energy, and co-ordination needed. And how much of that extra do we have with our busy lives? 🛒 No answers, just questions…. And a knowledge that whilst it’s all so much more work, I can’t go back. This is what I personally need to do; to keep up my own personal fight for the planet, and our children’s future. 🛒 . . . . . . #plasticfree #plasticfreeshopping #plasticfreegroceries #plasticfreetips #ecomum #mollysmasterclassmums
Plastic Pollution Mid-Pandemic
But now… the world is a different place.
The use of plastic, sometimes reusable, often single-use, is literally saving the lives of the care-givers, who are saving our lives.
This is a price I am willing to pay.
But what about us? What about the general public? What path will we choose? What path should we choose? How to we balance our safety against this virus with our long-term safety from plastic pollution?
Sadly disposable face masks and gloves can’t be recycled.
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Facemasks, gloves and any other PPE can't be recycled. Recycling plants keep finding disposable masks in the recycling, especially mixed in with paper and card, meaning they're having to class the recycling as contaminated and sending it for incineration/landfill instead :( Not only this, but staff who work in the plants and collection crews are put at risk. Keep yourselves and frontline workers safe by putting all your PPE in your rubbish bin at home and tying bin bags securely! #Care4YourCrews #FrontlineHeroes #LondonTogether #WednesdayWisdom #RecycleRight #Recycle #GoodToKnow #DYK #DidYouKnow #Facemasks #Covid19 #Lockdown #LockdownLife #London #StaySafeSaveLives
And we’re seeing more of this around and about
I know I’ve seen a number of gloves and masks in random places in my local park when I go running.
"If they're thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea,"
said Anastasia Miliou - marine biologist and research director with the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation based in Greece.
Even if they are not deliberately dropped or discarded, they can fall out of bags and pockets when other things are gotten out, and because they are so light, they can easily blow away.
So this isn’t about blaming the wearer. This is about how we approach the manufacturing of ALL products, especially single-use ones.
Richard Thompson, professor and director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth, says that while it is understandable that sustainability practices backtrack in a crisis, tackling the plastic waste crisis means not losing sight of the whole life cycle of a product — from design until end of life.
"This should be the same thing whether it's a bottle of lemonade or a mask that's used in a hospital. Of course, it doesn't help that we're in this time of crisis, particularly when everybody is wanting a mask."
But this is something we as a society need to think about, especially if the virus, and subsequently the use of disposable safety items, is here to stay for a while.
Restrictions on single-use plastics have been paused or diluted as governments try to battle the spread of the Coronavirus. Here in the UK, the charges on single-use plastic bags used for online grocery shopping have been dropped as of the 21st March until 21st September 2020.
Once pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants open up again after lockdown, they will look very different to the crowded hustle and bustle we’re used to. However, as well as the social distancing, there will be a whole lot of single use and/or plastic items in use: masks and gloves for staff, hand sanitiser available throughout, single use menus, plastic screens, surface cleaning every 15 minutes (which likely means disposable wipes - which we know from Hugh & Anita's War on Plastic programme area around 80% plastic.). With this being in every establishment, that is a lot of plastic being used and rubbish generated.
In a CNN article on the subject we read:
I really hope a safe way forward can be found that doesn’t adversely impact the environment, and of course our long-term health. But I envisage lots of heated debates to come.
2. Climate Change, Greenhouse Gases and Carbon Emissions
Pre-Pandemic Climate Crisis
Before Covid 19 really took hold, Greta Thunberg had galvanised the feeling among many, especially the young, that the time to take action to try to address climate change was NOW. With her weekly School Strikes she sparked global action, which put pressure on most governments, and many global companies to up their game on their carbon reduction targets and timeframe. She told us:
“Well I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people.”
And this inspired us to make individual changes in our own lives too. (Just click listen to her speak - she's so inspiring.)
It was not enough, by any means. We have a very short window to keep global warming below 1.5’C. Even following our current pledges (not enacted), we will won't hit our target.
We need to completely change our way of living.
But... it seemed that for the most part, the desire was finally there. I for one had hope.
Mid-Pandemic Carbon Emissions: the Lockdown Effect
It certainly seems that the lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the Coronavirus has had a hugely, positive impact in reducing our global carbon emissions.
Flight numbers have plummeted.
Individual transport usage has fallen, and though creeping up slowly, it is still at 50% of normal usage. And public transport usage has plummeted and is still a tiny fraction of what it was pre-pandemic.
And this has meant that (during the lockdown at least) carbon emissions drastically fell. When the lockdown was at its strictest, in some countries emissions fell by 26% on average. In the UK, the decline in carbon emissions was about 31%, while in Australia emissions fell 28.3% for a period during April.
The forecast for CO2 emissions are now much lower than originally predicted for 2020, with the lockdowns having a much more dramatic effect than many other devastating global events, such as the World Wars, the Great Depression and the Financial Crash of 2008.
The question is then, are we going to be able to maintain this decline in emissions?
The UK Government has pledged £2 billion to promote cycling and walking schemes, to reduce pressure on public transport. And initiatives such as Slow Ways are promoting walking instead of driving with their online maps of UK walking routes, so people can safely walk from town to town instead of drive, once the lockdown is fully lifted.
Bicycle sales have soared since the lockdown started, as have registrations in cycle-to-work schemes, and the servicing of and buying new parts for old bikes that have been previously sitting, unused in garages.
The AA has stated that it predicts a sharp decline in the use of cars after the lockdown ends.
Life After Lockdown: Will The Environment Be Worse Or Better Off?
So, going back to the original question: will the environment be worse or better off after lockdown? Looking at the data, it a hugely over-simplified answer is to say that, in terms of Carbon Emissions the answer is yes, and in terms of Plastic Pollution the answer is no.
But as with everything in life, nothing is straight forward.
Life After Lockdown: Carbon Emissions
The reality is that whilst many more people will work from home all or even some of the time, once we’re fully out of lockdown, there are still so many jobs that can not be done from home – either all the time, or at all. People will have to travel to work. And when a recent poll suggests that 61% of people are nervous about taking public transport post-lockdown, this is likely to drive people back into their cars if they need to travel greater distances. (We are an incredibly eco family as you know, but we have talked about if and when we can see my parents we would be more likely to drive in the near future than take the train, which we’d normally do.)
For governments to hit their carbon reduction targets, public transport needs to be a big part of the solution, and I worry that this will set us back.
In addition, in reality, whilst we have had a huge reduction in the amount of carbon likely to be emitted in 2020, the drop is still only expected to be 6-8%. Emissions have to fall by at least 7.6% every year to 2050 to keep global warming below 1.5’C!! (Read that again, just to let that fact sink in.)
Considering the 2020 drop will only have been achieved through a mass pandemic and global lockdown, severely impacting our economies and non-Covid related health and well-being, the enormity of this challenge is now plain to see. (We can not be in lockdown for the next 30 years!)
Hope for Clean Air and Carbon Reduction
There is hope though.
As reported in the Express & Star:
Campaigners have called for a fundamental redesign of the transport system to help prevent a bounce-back in air pollution levels once the lockdown ends.
Nine organisations have written an open letter to the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment, as well as the Chancellor, leaders of local and regional authorities, and City Mayors.
“It would be completely absurd if, after the unprecedented efforts and sacrifices made to save thousands of lives from Covid-19, we allowed thousands more to be cut short by the devastating impacts of toxic pollution.”
The group’s demands include wider pavements, protected cycle tracks, restricted through-traffic in residential and shopping streets through the installation of bus gates, bollards and planters, networks of low-traffic neighbourhoods, and walking and cycling to be prioritised along main roads.
And it seems the public are supportive of this. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by Greenpeace UK showed 71% of people are concerned about the possibility of air pollution returning to pre-lockdown levels.
In addition, in one of the biggest car-free initiatives of any city in the world, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that many main streets will be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists. There are also plans to have walking and cycling only streets too. The Mayor rightly stated:
“And we can’t see journeys formerly taken on public transport replaced with car usage because our roads would immediately become unusably blocked and toxic air pollution would soar.”
Extrapolate this out nationally, and maybe plans like this could work in other cities and towns?
Hope for Safe Sustainable Options for Protective Wear
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that regular hand-washing offers more protection against Covid 19 than wearing rubber gloves while in public areas – a totally zero waste option for the general public. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for the general public, washable cloth masks will offer the necessary protection – zero waste again, and indefinitely reusable.
Currently, PPE used in hospitals and other medical and care facilities is largely non-recyclable or non-reusable, there are sustainable options that are emerging. The US car manufacturer Ford is producing reusable gowns from the same materials used for car air bags, which can be washed up to 50 times. And the University of Nebraska is testing to see whether ultraviolet light can decontaminate and prolong the life of medical masks, and so reduce waste.
So... After Lockdown, Will The Environment Be Better Off?
It’s hard to answer this for sure, as I said before, in the short term, possibly carbon emission-wise, yes and plastic pollution no…? Whilst the amazing environmental recovery pictures should inspire us and show us what’s possible, we shouldn’t get too complacent and rose-tinted about how easy things will be.
But I think that moving forward we, as individuals, families, countries, governments, companies, as humans, need to not let fear and panic blind us to the continuation of alternative ways of living in a more environmentally friendly way, even while we protect ourselves against this virus. And it’s going to be hard work. We need to have a lockdown-sized impact on climate-change EVERY year for the next 30 years. So we need to get our thinking caps on fast as to how we’re going to do it!
As Extinction Rebellion point out, we should want to flatten THIS curve too!
Let's just hope we have, as Tomos Roberts says in his amazing poem, a Great Realisation.....
And people like Prince Charles and organisations like the World Economic Forum, help us enact a 'great reset'.
On the 3rd June 2020, the Prince of Wales is to co-host an event with the founder of the World Economic Forum to bring about a “green recovery”, as he launches a "Great Reset". He will encourage businesses and politicians to ensure they “build back better” as we come out of lockdown and start to re-build post-pandemic. I really hope someone of his magnitude can make my hopes, our hopes more of a reality.
However, as with everything, both now with this pandemic and going forward with Climate Change and Environment Pollution, governments can only lead and legislate, WE have to enact - both in terms of our individual actions, and as consumers, putting pressure on companies to make changes in how they operate, and voting with our hard-earned (and possibly now scarcer) money for greener options.
I would love to hear what you think. Let me know below.
As ever, with love from our family to yours, especially in these strange times.
Stay safe and keep well,