No one can stop talking about the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world. I certainly can’t blame them — as the numbers of infected and dying individuals rise, the reality of living in a pandemic has loomed more and more heavily over all of us. It has caused the cancellation of countless events and forced Binghamton University and many other schools to transition to online-only classes — many for the remainder of the semester. Even those who have not been personally affected by the virus have seen their lives uprooted. But a less discussed and interesting effect of the spread of COVID-19 has been its impact on the environment.
At first, it seemed to me that the virus’s environmental impact would be purely detrimental. Everyone is straying away from reusable items that could carry bacteria and toward single-use, disposable items. For example, when visiting a friend’s apartment, she asked that I use paper towels rather than a cloth towel to dry my hands, something we would normally frown upon. Food service workers also have to change their plastic gloves between every customer, which generates more plastic waste. As we all know, plastics do not biodegrade, so they will likely outlast us, and they often end up polluting our waterways and oceans. Practicing good hygiene and keeping up with social distancing makes everyone safer, as it impedes the spread of germs when you do have to go out into the world — but it’s changing some habits for the worse.
People are additionally discouraged from taking buses, trains, subways and other modes of public transportation. One of the many benefits of public transportation is that it cuts down on the carbon emissions that would be created if everyone using public transport were to take their own vehicle. Now, people are being encouraged to drive instead of ride. Finally, with thousands of people hoarding goods like toilet paper, medical masks and pasta, factories will have to ramp up production to meet the growing demand. Factories come with a whole host of environmental issues including carbon emissions, agricultural waste and increased ground-level ozone.
On the other hand, COVID-19, or rather the steps taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, has had some beneficial effects on the environment. For instance, NASA images showing decreased air pollution in China have been making the rounds on Instagram. Lauren Sommer of NPR writes, “February satellite readings in the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant [generated] primarily from burning fossil fuels, show a dramatic decline compared to early January when power plants were operating at normal levels.” Levels of NO2 have decreased by nearly a third and carbon emissions by a quarter. These numbers may not seem huge, but China emits the most greenhouse gases of any other nation, so the decrease is not meaningless. Measures encouraging people to stay at home and lowering overall factory production can be thanked for the decrease.
We are already seeing similar pollution reductions in the United States in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City. Los Angeles is a leader in American smog levels, but NO2 levels have seen a decline since , similar to China. Rush hour has become practically nonexistent. Seattle, home to one of the earliest outbreaks as well as one of the first cities to put precautions into place, has also seen a decline in NO2 and traffic levels. Seattle initially saw residents stocking up at grocery stores, but these grocery store visits have already fallen off — so maybe we can look forward to seeing pasta on Wegmans’ shelves once again.
Finally, in addition to the declines in traffic and NO2, “researchers at Columbia University have seen emissions of carbon monoxide over New York City decline more than 50 percent below typical levels over the past week,” according to the New York Times. Even New Yorkers are staying inside and contributing less pollution to the environment. When the weather is nice, I see lots of people outside going for walks and jogs — we are being forced away from our computer screens and going outdoors, reading books and doing all the other things we say we never have time for. Many of these activities produce little or less waste than what we might normally do. They can also have more long-lasting benefits like helping us realize how walkable our city is and that we really don’t have to drive to Starbucks every morning.
None of this is to say COVID-19 is good or we should stop taking precautions to prevent its spread; it is a deadly disease that has caused suffering for thousands. But if the smallest good thing could come from social distancing and lockdown, it’s that it has taught us we can change our ways for the better. The biggest polluters in the world can work to reduce pollution, and it will improve the environment. Fewer than two weeks of lockdown in the United States and a month in China has brought such drastic results; imagine how much we could help if we committed to reducing pollution in the long term. In the coming weeks and months, after the outbreak peaks and we eventually return to status quo, those in power should take a good, hard look at the significant emission reduction we’ve managed to see in such short time, and work toward making long-term changes.
Legislation limiting emissions will have positive effects on the environment if we learn from what we’re seeing now. As students and regular folks, if we come out of our socially distanced cocoons, we too can examine what harmful practices we gave up and don’t need to return to. Big changes are needed, but the small everyday changes help too.
Jessica Gutowitz is a senior majoring in English.