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The Impacts Of Coronavirus On The Environment A city skyline covered in dirty smog

The Impacts Of Coronavirus On The Environment

Introduction

Our lives have really changed over the past weeks. The global economy has slowed tremendously as non-essential businesses have closed and many people are stuck in quarantine. Stress and worry have become everyday emotions, but there is some good in all of this. The impacts of coronavirus on the environment and its future are a bright spot in a time of darkness. Let’s take a look at some of the effects I’ve noticed.

Less Air Pollution

Perhaps you have seen photos online comparing pre-pandemic and current skylines or landscapes where smog has cleared up. These photos show that it is possible to quickly clear our air of toxins and particulate matter that harm human health and wildlife. With less industrial business and much, much less people driving around, emissions have plummeted which leads to cleaner air for us and the other life on this planet. According to this article, “the northeastern U.S. has seen atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution decline by 30% in March compared with the same period last year.”

Less GHGs

For the same reason, less carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere. With global energy demand predicted to fall 6% this year, greenhouse gas emissions will see their largest drop ever recorded (8%). By reducing the amount of additional greenhouse gases (GHGs), we can slow climate change caused by global warming. If companies adopt working from home opportunities after the pandemic, this reduction can continue.

Wildlife Resurgence

Although I live in the city, the return of wildlife is noticeable. The Boston subreddit was full of turkey photos taking strolls through empty streets. My parents live in a more rural area and are constantly sending my photos of deer and turkey and other animals that visit their yard. Reducing our presence and noise levels invite wildlife back into the land we have stolen from them.

Slowing Wasteful Industries

Many governments around the world have forced shutdowns of non-essential businesses. People are consuming less than before, which causes industry to produce less. Airlines and global shipping industries have seen significant declines. The fashion industry which preys on cheap Asian labor is being squeezed from both ends: slower production and decreased demand.

While unfortunately this affects workers, the slowing of industry provides an opportunity to re-evaluate supply chains and manufacturing choices. I have heard/read many news stories (like this one) that specifically point to global supply chains as a weakness, especially in times of crisis. I am hopeful this pandemic will shift manufacturing to domestic factories and stabilize our consumption levels.

Less Buying Of Non-Necessities

When shopping trips involve long lines and social distancing measures, most people are only going out when it is necessary. This leads to multiple benefits. Coronavirus has basically wiped out shopping as a hobby. People are not buying things they do not need and creating waste. They are not driving around to stores as often, thereby reducing emissions even more.

People are trying to make do with what they have and stretching resources to make them last. While it is unfortunate it is under these circumstances, these practices could easily extend beyond the pandemic and become a normal part of our lives.

Appreciation For Nature

Being stuck inside has led to an increased appreciation for the outdoors. Walks, hikes, or bike rides outdoors have become essential to both our mental and physical health during this time. Most of us have much more free time and use it to get outside (away from others) and appreciate Mother Nature. The peacefulness while walking alone in a forest really helps connect us with nature, and hopefully many people will maintain that connection in the future.

Appreciation For Slow Living

The previous two impacts of coronavirus on the environment both play into this one. Slow living is based on appreciating what we have, taking time for what matters, and reducing the waste and excess in our lives. You can read about the surprising benefits of slow living in this post. Slow living involves buying less and extending the lifespans of the objects we own, which most of us are now doing.

It also involves self-sufficiency skills. Many people have picked up new hobbies that fall into one of these categories. I have seen lots of posts online of people trying their hands at cooking, baking, sewing, and other activities that perhaps they would never otherwise try, and they see how fulfilling and fun they are. And skills like gardening or even slow living’s mindfulness practices heighten our appreciation for nature.

Coming Together For A Single Cause

While coronavirus has many impacts on our lives right now, it also can impact our environment in the future. The pandemic has brought us together. We are helping those who need it and share a sense of comradery because we are all in similar circumstances. This shows that it is possible to come together and fight for something.

The fight against climate change should be no different. We will all be affected by it, no matter who we are or where we live. We need to band together, help those who need it most, and demand policies that will protect us.

In addition to coming together, we all have changed our behaviors rather quickly. Our day to day lives have changed significantly since the winter. We do things differently: working from home, staying inside, wearing masks, socializing virtually. While some still refuse these behavioral changes, it is important to realize their success and how they can be applied to the environment. We could change our behaviors to reduce consumerism, waste, and pollution so long as we realize their importance.

Political Action

This impact also refers to future applications. Governments have had to work quickly to help citizens get financial aid and needed supplies. They have found trillions of dollars to provide assistance to individuals, small and large businesses, and governments. In the US, that figure is over $2 trillion. In Canada, it is over $60 billion, and in the EU, it is $3.7 trillion (all figures in USD). While this shows money can be found in times of crisis, if we take climate action measures now, they will cost less and can be spread out over time to reduce impact.

In the US, the CARES Act passed in a matter of days instead of months, showing policy can move through quickly. There is no reason climate action should move slower. We have seen that substantial bills can become law quickly and begin having an effect on the nation.

Conclusion

While most of the impacts of coronavirus on the environment may be temporary, it is possible for many to persist as we create a “new normal” post-pandemic. I, for one, am hopeful because coronavirus has taught us we can make big changes if enough of us realize their importance to our health and our future.

As a final note, always make sure you are getting information regarding the pandemic from reliable sources, such as your government or the science and health communities.

The Impacts Of Coronavirus On The Environment A city skyline covered in dirty smog
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What Does China’s Recycling Ban Really Mean large bales of recycling stacked up awaiting shipment overseas for processing

What Does China’s Recycling Ban Really Mean?

Introduction

Did you know if you live in a developed country, most of your recycling is actually sent to other countries for processing? It didn’t use to be this way, but with the advent of a global economy and China’s extremely fast growth, exporting recyclables became much more profitable than recycling them domestically. But now China’s recycling ban has halted imports and left countries drowning in stockpiled recyclable material.

By 2016, China imported over half of all imported recyclable waste, but in 2017, China announced it would start enforcing stricter rules on its recycling imports, making it much harder and even unprofitable to export recycling there. So what does China’s recycling ban mean for all of us?

This ban took effect in 2018, and now many countries are struggling with what to do with all their recycling. Many municipalities have begun shutting down curbside recycling programs and sending truckloads of materials to landfill because they have no other profitable way to get rid of them.

Unfortunately, recycling is still a business, not a public good. This means recyclers will chose the most profitable option, even if that isn’t necessarily what’s in the public’s (or the environment’s) best interest. We’ll look at some possible solutions at the end of this post which can help confront the millions of tons of recyclable material we are used to sending elsewhere.

Global Recycling

Recycling as we know it today (curbside programs and bottle return machines) was born in the late 1960s due to the environmental movement and increased awareness about the effects of the disposable lifestyle introduced in the 1950s. Although during the 1970s and 80s there were huge relative increases in recycling rates, today’s rates are still pretty low. The US and UK recycle about 34% and 39% of the waste they generate respectively. Only 9% of plastic is recycled today.

In the beginning, recycling was a domestic industry, but in the 1990s China and other countries (mostly in Asia) began buying up larger and larger amounts of recyclable waste. The recycled materials boosted China’s manufacturing industry and led to its quick rise to power on the global stage. China made recycling easily profitable, and many countries began sending more and more material overseas, driving recycling to become a $200 billion industry.

Before China decided to impose bans and stricter standards on the waste it imports, the nation bought the majority of global recyclable waste. The US exported 1/3 of all its recycling, and half of that went to China. The UK exported 2/3 of its plastic waste directly to China. The EU sent 60% of plastic waste and 13% of paper waste to China for recycling.

U.S. total scrap exports to china by real dollar value graph 1996 to 2013
Credit: PIERS

In total, China was responsible for importing well over half of all global plastic waste and half of all global paper exports. But in 2017, China began rolling back its recycling purchases.

China’s Recycling Ban

What Is The Ban?

China’s recycling ban on importing foreign waste is actually two different policies. The first began in 2013 to enforce regulations passed in 2006 and 2010. This policy, called “Green Fence”, increases standards on imported waste by lowering the acceptable contamination percentage. In July 2017, China dropped the percentage to just 0.3% but increased it back up to 0.5% by October of that year. The University of Georgia has estimated that these policies could displace 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030.

China announced the second policy, called “National Sword”, in 2017 which bans 24 different types of solid waste materials. Some of these materials are PET drink bottles, plastic containers, and mixed paper. Mixed paper includes paper products like magazines and catalogs. This policy also cracked down on permit fraud and the smuggling in of recycling waste to China.

China has also imposed higher quality control standards for all other wastes it hasn’t yet banned, but these policies are just the beginning. The country began a total phase-out of waste imports that started last year.

Why Ban Recycling Imports?

Now why would China suddenly refuse foreign waste (something that created a huge industry and led to the nation’s economic boom in the past decades)? They have cited both environmental and public health concerns.

China has no fully-developed waste management system so it has struggled to handle all the imported waste. The recycling facilities are not well-monitored and pay very low wages to workers workers. These workers must manually sort through all the material and remove non-recyclable pieces. They are exposed to toxic chemicals like mercury and lead. China has shut down many facilities because they failed inspections.

In addition to these issues, China has also reduced its need to import foreign material. Its quick rise as an economic powerhouse has caused an increase in domestic recycling, an increase in virgin material use, and an increase in domestic plastic and paper consumption.

Effects

Effects Abroad

This graphic from National Geographic shows the bottleneck effect China’s recycling ban has had on waste exports. From February 2017 to February 2018, there was a 557,000 metric ton drop in exports to China. Following the ban, over 50 countries have fully halted exports to China. This constriction has led to many problems in the countries that used to send their waste to China.

Other countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have begun importing more waste as a result of China’s pullout, but this is not a solution to the problem. These countries do not have the buying power, the infrastructure, or capacity to fully takeover for China.

Effects At Home

A New York Times report from May of last year has shown that hundreds of recycling programs in America are collapsing due to the inability to do anything with the waste. Because recycling is a business, facilities have stockpiled material in warehouses and parking lots while trying to find a buyer that would turn a profit only to fail and instead incinerate the material or send it to landfill. They have increased recycling fees and even shut down or stopped collecting in certain cities.

Incinerating recyclable plastics forces an increase in virgin plastics, but burning plastics is also very harmful to the environment. Dioxins get released into the atmosphere, which can cause cancer. Incineration also contributes to global warming, and waste to energy plants aren’t as green as they might appear. An article in the Atlantic says “[s]tudies have found that they release more harmful chemicals, such as mercury and lead, into the air per unit of energy than do coal plants“.

Sending more and more waste to landfill has also led to an increase in landfill fees. Recyclers have little other choice but to pay them since recycling is even more expensive or impossible. Developed countries that have grown used to shipping recycling overseas do not have proper domestic facilities to handle the material themselves.

Here are a few examples of how China’s ban has affected American cities:

  • Broadway, VA – Suspended recycling program due to inability to cover a 63% cost increase.
  • Blaine County, ID – Stopped mixed paper collected and sent 35 bales to landfill.
  • Fort Edward, NY – Suspended recycling program and admitted to sending recycling to incinerators for months prior to shut down.
  • Akron, OH – Suspended glass recycling program

If you’re in the US, you can check out how the ban has affected your state by searching through Waste Dive’s collection of recycling impacts in all 50 states. In my state of Massachusetts, there have been higher recycling fees, material pile-ups, and canceled contracts. Some places have ended single-stream recycling in favor of old school sorted recycling to reduce the risk of contamination.

Solutions

Although there may be no magic solution to solving our global recycling crisis overnight, there are options for industry to create a more sustainable future and actions you can take today to help combat the issue.

Because many countries have relied on global recycling, they do not have proper facilities. By building and rebuilding domestic recycling facilities, we can start taking responsibility for our waste instead of pushing it somewhere else. Recycling budgets must increase so domestic facilities can keep operating.

According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, around 25% of material placed in recycling bins is contaminated. To improve the quality of our recycling waste, we may need to revert back to a sorted system instead of the single-stream system in many municipalities today. Single-stream recycling increases the quantity of recycled material because people don’t need to put in much effort so will recycle more things, but it greatly decreases the quality because these items are too dirty or not recyclable in the first place.

The public must get educated on what they can and cannot recycle to reduce contamination and quicken the sorting process. Check out my post called What Can I Recycle and Where? for a quick guide.

Robot sorting machines can go through material much faster than humans and could provide a better end product (reduced contamination).

Since 89% of exported plastics are single-use food packaging, companies should move toward less packaging, reusable packaging, and/or compostable packaging. A tax on plastic waste has also been proposed as a way to discourage waste. Pushing for heightened corporate social responsibility (CSR) will put an end to consumers being responsible for and dealing with the effects of the poor choices producers make.

Conclusion

Do you have any other ideas for how we can tackle our recycling problem in light of China’s recycling ban? Have you seen the effects of the ban in your area? Leave a comment below!

What Does China’s Recycling Ban Really Mean large bales of recycling stacked up awaiting shipment overseas for processing
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