Our View: Environmental impact of COVID-19

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(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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The emphasis of the COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily been on treatment for the sick and preventative measures to slow the spread of the virus. In this week’s Times, we have two stories that examine hindrances to testing and treatment, respectively.

The economic impact of the preventative measures taken to flatten the COVID-19 curve are also staggering, and have rightly received significant attention. Many people are already reeling financially from being laid off from jobs, while companies ranging from large airlines to local restaurants are staggering. Their recovery is going to require both customer support and government assistance.

COVID-19 is also causing serious environmental harm.

Significant strides have been made in recent years alerting people to the harm single-use plastics pose for the environment. The mantra has been to avoid plastics altogether, to reuse those that we must utilize and then recycle them.

But during a pandemic, those refillable water bottles are walking germ catchers. The thought of a refillable bottle rolling around in an airport security bin on an x-ray conveyer belt, awaiting refilling, is unsettling. Right now, single-use plastics are safer than reusable bottles and grocery bags.

Also, think of all of the disposable surgical gloves in use right now. Food service and grocery store workers, postal workers, medical workers and regular residents are all safer from COVID-19 by extensively using one-time, disposable gloves. And though their advisability has been debated, disposable surgical masks are everywhere.

With restaurants closed to eat-in dining, eateries are staying afloat by providing food by takeout or delivery. While many restaurants have turned to biodegradable containers for their takeout, most still use plastic containers. Some still put things like soup, sauces or beverages in Styrofoam.

Normative wisdom on transportation best practices has also been turned upside down by COVID-19.

Mass transit is widely thought of as better for the environment from a pollution perspective than combustion engine automobiles. However, in a pandemic, driving alone in a personal vehicle – to work or the grocery store – is the safest way to avoid contagion if people must travel.

Riding Metro, a VRE train or even a publicly available e-scooter or Bikeshare bicycle puts people at much greater risk of spreading or contracting a contagious disease than does riding in a personal vehicle.

The COVID-19 pandemic will end one day, though perhaps later rather than sooner. Unfortunately, with increasing globalization, it’s unlikely to be the last pandemic we encounter.

A period of reassessment is going to be needed when we emerge from this necessary period of isolation. As a community and as a nation we are going to need to re-examine previous assumptions on a wide range of topics.

Environmentally, the negative impacts of COVID-19 may last well beyond the current crisis.

Will people eventually go back to their reusable water bottles? Will people prioritize reusable bags for grocery stores, or will they decide personal safety trumps environmental concerns? Will take-out versus eat-in dining become the norm, particularly for more vulnerable populations? And will people willingly go back to using mass transit – or will they decide they’re safer, long-term, commuting in their private vehicles?

Time alone will tell. But the environmental toll from COVID-19 may be felt for decades.

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