Different impacts on the environment were felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. The air was cleaner, and the water was clearer. The trash was also more present; single-use items spread more around the globe and were thrown away after minutes of use. Experts noticed that even though the positive effects were several, they are all most likely temporary, while the negative effects will have long-term consequences.
“I don’t think any [positive] effect will be long-term because the long-term changes need to change the habits, to change the technology or to change something permanently, not only during a few months”, explains the Dejan Mirakovski, the Dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University Goce Delchev in Stip. Mirakovski also doesn’t believe this will be solved now, nor is it reasonable to expect it. “When you have hungry people in front of your building, you cannot say you must buy electric cars. They are surviving now, but we should learn from this and start working on the structure”.
There is always a solution, and the Professor, who is also specialized in environmental protection, believes that we can significantly reduce our footprint “if we reduce some things properly or organize things properly.”
Positive environmental effects
Reduction of GHGs and improvement of air quality
What are GHGs, and what causes them?
GHG stands for greenhouse gas. It includes “any gas in the atmosphere which absorbs and re-emits heat, and thereby keeps the planet’s atmosphere warmer than it otherwise would be,” states Ecometrica, an environmental software provider and one of the top sustainability brands. Some of the most known GHGs are water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Despite their natural presence in Earth’s atmosphere, “human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing the levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change”, according to the same source.
What are the consequences?
According to National Geographic, GHGs “cause climate change by trapping heat” and “contribute to respiratory disease from smog and air pollution.” “Extreme weather, food supply disruptions, and increased wildfires” are other consequences named by the magazine. From 1906 to 2019, the global average surface temperature increased by more than 0.9 degrees Celsius, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a key indicator of warming in the climate system.
Air quality is a significant issue nowadays – according to World Health Organization (WHO), 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits. “The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections”, states WHO.
How has the pandemic affected GHGs emissions and air quality?
With entire countries in lockdown and economies on standby, GHGs emissions dropped in a short period. Recent studies show that in China – the country with the biggest slice of GHG emissions, with 25,76% of global emissions in 2016, according to Climate Watch data – was estimated a 50% reduction of N2O and CO due to the shutdown of heavy industries.
At the same time, other industries speeded up their production. “Let’s say metal’s production, for example, because we need more computers; we need more medical equipment and other things. So, more or less, the production was not so significantly reduced”, states Mirakovski.
A high reduction of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gaseous air pollutant responsible for 68 000 premature deaths only within the EU in 2016 and one of the causes for acid rain and several respiratory diseases suffered by humans, was observed during lockdowns. This happened because transportation was restricted, and NO2 is usually emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, 80% of which comes from motor vehicle exhaust. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) predicted NO2 emissions dropped 30-60% in many European cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Paris, because of the lockdowns. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, “power generation from coal has fallen 37% and oil consumption by an estimated 1/3”, reducing the “main sources of NO2 pollution and key sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe”, states the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. This avoided 11 000 air pollution-related deaths in Europe, according to the same source.
However, Mirakovski believes this is only temporary. “Generally, this is the picture only for this period, because we didn’t change the traffic structure, we didn’t change the vehicles – we just didn’t drive them so much”, he explains. “We are the reason for the pollution because of our way of living.”
Reduction of water pollution
What is water pollution?
Water pollution happens when “harmful substances – often chemicals or microorganisms —contaminate a stream, river, lake, ocean, aquifer, or other body of water, degrading water quality and rendering it toxic to humans or the environment”, states the Natural Resources Defense Council. Human settlements, industries, and agriculture (cropping activities, livestock, and aquaculture) are the major sources of water pollution, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Littering – to dispose of trash incorrectly on the environment and places where the garbage shouldn’t be – is another source of water pollution. From the over 300 million tons of plastic produced every year worldwide, at least 8 million ends up in our oceans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
What are the consequences?
Water pollution can kill. Not only ecosystems but also humans. According to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, 1.8 million deaths worldwide were caused by water pollution in 2015. And every year, unsafe water sickens about 1 billion people around the globe. Infectious diseases such as diseases like Typhoid, Cholera, Paratyphoid Fever, Dysentery, Jaundice, Amoebiasis, and Malaria can be spread through contaminated water, according to The World Counts.
Waste plastic makes up 80% of the trash found in the ocean, threatening “health, food safety, and quality, human health, coastal tourism” besides contributing to climate change”, states IUCN. Then, the huge amount of plastic spread in nature starts to break down into smaller and smaller particles and finds its way to our food chain and water sources. These tiny particles are known as microplastics. A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and conducted by researchers at the University of Newcastle estimated that people consume about 5 grams of plastic a week, the equivalent of a credit card, through microplastics we eat, drink, and breathe. Research on this issue is still recent, and there isn’t enough data yet to reach conclusions, but “these chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems, including reproductive harm and obesity, plus issues such as organ problems and developmental delays in children”, according to The Washington Post.
How has the pandemic affected it?
The lockdown period closed (completely or almost completely) the major industries and with it, one of the main sources of waste. “If there was an industry that significantly pollutes water and it reduced production during the pandemic, they may have some improvements”, states Mirakovski.
“And the tourists are a very important group of polluters – traveling, trashing”, he continues. And the results were there to see: the Grand Canal of Italy turned clear, and many aquatic species reappeared; beach areas of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives, and Indonesia had less pollution; and the Ganges, a sacred but severely polluted river in India, turned clearer on many locations during the nationwide lockdown period.
“Again, we will learn that we need to change some habits, stop trashing, travel more efficiently – there are a lot of things to be changed”, he concludes.
Reduction of noise pollution
What is it?
According to several studies, noise pollution is defined as the “elevated levels of sound, generated from different human activities (machines, vehicles, construction work), which may lead to adverse effects in human and other living organisms”.
What are the consequences?
Noise pollution can negatively affect physiological health, along with cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, and sleep shortness in humans. According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA) report on Environmental noise in Europe – 2020, 140 million Europeans are affected by long-term noise from traffic, railways, aircraft, and industry that will probably affect their health significantly. WHO predicted that in Europe alone, over 100 million people are exposed to high noise levels above the recommended limit.
How has the pandemic affected it?
Lockdown measures reduced economic and industrial activities, kept people inside their households, and therefore reduced noise levels in most cities, according to several studies. The noise level of Delhi, the capital of India, was reduced by around 40-50% during the most recent lockdown period. Travel restrictions also helped tackle noise pollution.
Giving nature time to restore itself
“Nature is more resilient than we anticipated and very fast. As soon as we move, it comes very fast. We had a lockdown, and the animals came to the streets, which was amazing for me”, says Mirakovski as he explains how the pandemic gave nature time to restore itself.
The decrease of tourism and public gatherings helped nature rest – visitors dump waste where they shouldn’t and mess with the ecosystem balance. The result of these restrictions was, for example, the changing of the watercolor at Cox’s Bazar beach, Bangladesh – known as the longest unbroken natural sandy sea beach in the world – since it’s usually turbid due to swimming, playing, and riding motorized boats.
“We think it’s needed years for nature to restore itself. This is not true – nature can restore more rapidly than we think”, states Mirakovski. “Also, now we can see that if we reduce some things properly or organize things properly, we can significantly reduce our footprint”, he continues. “We just need to organize. Small things”.
Negative environmental effects
Increase of biomedical waste and disposal of single-use items
Biomedical waste is defined as “all waste generated by biomedical research institutions, health facilities, medical laboratories, and from scattered or minor sources”, according to the study “Coronavirus pandemic and its natural environmental impacts.” Due to the pandemic, it was noticed an increase in plastic consumption and further disposal, mostly because of single-use items, besides the huge amount of medical waste produced, both situations happening for safety purposes. “Individual safety appliances, gloves and masks for medical employees, disposable plastic items for life-support tools, respirators, and common plastic items involving medical needles”, are some of the items involved, states the same source. This happened before the pandemic since “inappropriate treatment of medical waste” already posed “serious hazardous transmission of secondary diseases.” But with covid-19, safety procedures had to be even more careful.
According to several studies, Wuhan, China, produced more than 240 tons of medical waste every day during the outbreak – 190 tons more than in the normal time. Also, in Ahmedabad, India, the production of medical waste increased from 550-600 kg/day to 1000 kg/day at the time of the first lockdown. This was observed in several other cities during the outbreaks, and such a sudden increase of hazardous waste became a significant challenge for the local waste management authorities.
Also, an important reminder: single-use items are not only used in health facilities. Facemasks, hand gloves, and other safety equipment are used daily around the world. Despite its generalized use, there is still a lack of knowledge about how to dispose of these items – most people dump them in open places or household wastes.
According to numerous studies, poorly disposing of these objects clogs waterways and worsens environmental pollution. Also, facemasks and other plastic-based protective equipment can be the potential source of microplastic fibers in the environment. Substances used in N-95 masks (Polypropylene) and protective suits, gloves, and medical face shields (Tyvek) can stay in nature for a long time and release dioxin and toxic elements to the surroundings.
“It’s a very big problem, and it’s not short-term. We didn’t learn from good, but now everybody thinks it’s good to use this plastic and throw it”, says Mirakovski in a concerned voice. “We underestimated this problem totally and worldwide. Also, this causes a lot of other problems we didn’t anticipate well. I think, like climate change, this is the story we should solve. These two things: climate change and pollution from trashing are the biggest problems we are facing currently”, he concludes.
Increase of municipal solid waste and reduction of recycling
Due to lockdown restrictions, most of the world’s population was confined at home. More time at home means more garbage was produced. Besides the increase in online shopping (and consequently, in wastes from shipped package materials), many countries restricted recycling programs. For instance, the USA restricted nearly 46% of the recycling programs because the government was worried about covid-19 spreading in recycling facilities. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and other European countries, also forbidden infected residents from sorting their waste. Several studies point out that; in general, “due to disruption of routine municipal waste management, waste recovery, and recycling activities, it was observed an increase in the landfilling and environmental pollutants worldwide.” This is worrying since “recycling is one of the most effective ways to prevent pollution, to save energy and to conserve natural resources.”