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Let’s Talk About COVID’s Environmental Impacts

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives over the past two years. From work, public health to school and media, everything has been affected by COVID. Despite it impacting every part of life, its impacts on the environment are rarely discussed or addressed. As we near the end of this pandemic, it’s imperative that we address the environmental effects of COVID and use them as a mechanism to improve existing systems nationally and globally.

For a large part of the pandemic, businesses, schools, airports and other spaces were locked down, or in limited use. At the beginning of the crisis, both adults and children were at home unless they needed something from an almost-empty grocery store. Such a drastic decrease in pressure on industry supply chains caused a decrease in pollutant emissions all around, which benefited our environment at the time. NO2 emissions, which cause health issues and acid rain, decreased up to 60 percent in some European countries and nearly 30 percent in the U.S. This pollutant is mainly emitted from motor vehicle exhaust, and given that most people were limited to their living spaces during this crisis, it makes sense to see such drastic changes.

In addition, since things were locked down globally, there was a decrease in pressure on tourist attractions. Globally, tourist attractions account for eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Since these attractions were closed or heavily restricted due to COVID, there’s been a decrease in noise pollution and better water quality.

Despite this positive impact, as we get back into “normal” life, greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions will eventually increase back to normal levels and may jump sharply to compensate for the last two years’ losses. Such a drastic decrease in pollution levels should serve as a sign to change our relationship with fossil fuels, and make improvements to industrial processes to decrease pollutant emissions. In addition, the development and use of greener transportation would be a beneficial way to decrease NO2 emissions.

PPE and medical equipment have been a crucial part of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for those in and out of the medical field. Masks were mandatory in most spaces for the majority of the last two years, and given that disposable masks are popular, haphazard disposal of these materials quickly became an issue. There’s been an obvious increase in medical waste, which contributes to both plastic and water pollution. At the peak of the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to see a used mask littered somewhere or along with other PPE. Other materials like syringes, needles and bandages were used heavily during the peak of this crisis and thus contribute to the stark increase in medical waste.

This trash accumulates very easily when nearly everyone is using it, and often ends up in bodies of water or in landfills. In addition, materials like gloves and some masks contain plastic, which isn’t degradable and adds to the overwhelming amount of existing plastic waste. This points to an issue that becomes increasingly concerning and important: waste management. Compared to other countries, the United States does not have a particularly good waste management system, which heavily contributes to pollution and waste. 

Both positive and negative impacts of the pandemic should serve as lessons for the future to find solutions for these issues. It would benefit the environment greatly to find useful ways to dispose of medical waste and PPE and ways to decrease the pressure on tourist, industrial and transport activities that normally harm the environment.  Finding ways to reuse materials and developing an effective waste management system will allow some of this pollution to improve. This would eventually allow for less plastic waste, less pollution and better air and water quality. Using renewable energy sources like wind and hydroelectricity is useful to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and the use of fossil fuels.

Though the COVID-19 crisis was unexpected in many ways, we should definitely be more prepared for the next pandemic in terms of public health impacts as well as economic, social and environmental issues that may arise. Addressing environmental issues like waste management and pollution is becoming crucial to sustaining our Earth and improving our quality of life.

Raquel Jones is a senior at VCU majoring in Interdisciplinary Science with a minor in General Business. She is passionate about health equity for black women, and adverse health outcomes in women. You can typically find Raquel traveling, trying new foods, listening to podcasts or journaling.