COVID-19 Pandemic Will Both Contribute to and Decrease Pollution

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Early into the COVID-19 quarantine, tweets about dolphins and swans returning to Venice due to the lack of human activity circulated. However, these “silver lining tweets” were fabricated. The swans in the tweets are actually regulars to the Burano canals and, similarly, the dolphins were from a different port in Sardinia. While these stories are a great way to keep in good spirits during a global pandemic, they do not fully express what is happening to the environment.

The water in the Venician canals is visibly clear, mostly as an impact of the lack of boats. Without the boats, less sediment is swept up. This allows more sunlight to reach the aquatic vegetation, which will be beneficial to the ecosystem in the future. Many are calling the COVID-19 lockdown an environmental catalyst because the environment during the quarantine will act as a benchmark when tracking pollution and ecological factors. By giving a fact-based statistic on feasible pollution reduction, people will be able to see where day-to-day pollution cut downs can be made.

Air quality as well as water quality has been tracked by scientists to determine the environmental implications of quarantine. According to researchers from the University of Washington, overall, air quality has not improved with fewer cars on the road. However, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have on average decreased by 30% in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York. Determining changes in pollution is relative depending on the current and past situation, which makes it extremely difficult for scientists to actually pinpoint what is going on. The University of Washington researchers have created a “robust difference” system that compares median pollution levels during a certain week in 2020 with the same week from previous years. This allows scientists to accurately figure out pollution level changes and understand where the planet stands.

Based on results from the researchers’ analysis there has been a global downward trend in pollution levels since the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Delhi’s average pollution was reduced by 60%, Seoul pollution was reduced by 54% and Wuhan saw a 44% soot decrease all within the three week lockdown period. Despite this good news, scientists fear that carbon output will return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future as seen in past eras of economic depression due to decreased production and increased frugality. Despite the emissions drop in the 2008 financial crisis, levels returned to normal soon after, and it is expected that a very similar scenario will play out once coronavirus guidelines are lifted. Also, in places like the Amazon Rainforest, deforestation has increased during the pandemic due to decreased surveillance.Because South America is so hard hit, the government has stepped away environmentally to work on decreasing pandemic damage. According to satellite data from INPE, 64% more land was cleared in May of this year than last May.

A new breed of pollution, “COVID-19 waste” has emerged in the form of discarded disposable masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other related products. The amount of COVID-19 waste collected is substantial, but not yet devastating. “It’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done,” Joffrey Peltier of the French nonprofit, Opération Mer Propre, said. According to a study by Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, in the UK alone, if a single-use mask was used daily for an entire year, an additional 66,000 tons of waste and 57,000 tons of plastic packaging would be produced on top of the 8 million tons of plastic already entering waterways every year.

Masks and gloves discarded anywhere will most likely end in bodies of water, usually through sewers. After the mask breaks down into microplastic it will likely be ingested by marine life which is detrimental to ecosystems. Disposable masks can take up to 450 years to completely decompose and disappear from ecosystems. But, because mask use has not always been a prevalent issue, it is possible that predictions may be lower than reality.

The use of nitrile gloves and latex gloves has also become a problem during the pandemic. While they are not as widely used as masks, there has been enough of an increase in their use to cause concern. Both types of gloves are non-recyclable and can take decades to decompose. Because so many do not use gloves effectively, gloves not only add to pollution issues but provide a false sense of security. Although gloves can prevent the transfer of the virus from a surface to an individual’s hands, if the virus is on the gloves through touching, it will be transferred to other objects. The more effective and less wasteful thing to do is regularly wash hands or use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Also, it is important to wipe down surfaces that you came in contact with before washing your hands. If reusable masks are readily available, they should be the first priority for day to day use and if gloves are worn, it is important to ensure that they are being used effectively and sparingly.

Through Teen Lenses: How do you think COVID-19 will impact the environment and pollution levels in the future?

“Depends really. Because when the shelter in place was first ordered people were staying home and there were places in like China where you could see the pollution on a slight decrease by visual air quality because people aren’t driving as much. I think that because we are inside more we’re using a lot more electricity throughout the day maybe for heaters or air conditioning ad that is definitely going to make an impact. In the beginning, people weren’t flying and if that were to be kept up I think we could have seen a positive impact. But, really in general if a shelter in place was ordered and people obeyed respectfully I think fewer people would be on the road and traveling and we could have seen an impressive impact with the decrease of pollutants.” Abby Arak, 16, rising junior, Mira Costa High School, Manhattan Beach, CA
“Although COVID-19 has instilled new habits like eating out less, driving the car less frequently and shopping less, which will decrease pollution in the near future, there is still a tremendous amount of problems with the environment that cannot be ignored.” Meghna Krishnan, 16, rising junior, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Potomac, MD
“I think it will help the environment because there won’t be as much pollution since no one can do anything right now.” Jack Morgan, 17, rising senior, Litchfield High School, Bethlehem, CT