Despite the many benefits lockdown upon the natural environment, there have also been negative effects. In the second part of our series on the impact of lockdown upon the natural world, we examine and reflect on the negative consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic upon the natural world and consider what steps can be taken as we move forward.
1. Use of Plastics
In stark contrast to the years leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, during lockdown there was a large increase in the use of plastics. Fear of the easily transmissible nature of the virus meant that many people reverted back to using disposable, single-use plastic items.
In most cafes, reusable cups were no longer accepted over fears they may lead to the virus being transmitted to staff and other customers. As face coverings became mandatory, many people initially opted for the single-use, disposable face masks. A similar situation also occurred with sanitising hand gels (most of which are packaged in plastic bottles), as well as disposable gloves. As a result, this led to a significant increase in the use of plastics and an increase in plastic waste.
There was a similar situation with PPE, which was urgently required to keep health workers and frontline staff. Amidst understandable and very real fears of cross-contamination and the critical need to prevent transmission between patients and staff, PPE had to be regularly and safely disposed of. Whilst there is a clear and understandable need for the use of these plastic items during this time of crisis, it ultimately led to a significant rise in the amount of plastic being used and wasted.
Looking forward, many companies are now considering whether there are more sustainable materials which can be used for the production of PPE. The key concern however, is that whatever material they do choose to use needs to first and foremost protect the wearer and serve its primary purpose. Perhaps a more pressing question is how the current plastic waste can be safely and responsibly disposed of.
For members of the wider society, we are beginning to see a shift towards the use of reusable face coverings, with governments regularly asking citizens to refrain from purchasing disposable face masks. Again, however, there is a need for these to be properly worn and washed in order to remain effective in their purpose. Similarly, there are also more options for sanitising gel refills, which can help reduce the use and waste of plastic packaging.
2. Economic Impact
Whilst we have perhaps become more aware of our natural environment and its benefits for our health and wellbeing, the long-term economic impact of Covid-19 could yet derail future climate change policies. As well as the huge toll on our health system, freedoms and overall wellbeing, Covid-19 has also had a significant impact upon the economy.
During the lockdowns, many businesses were simply unable to operate. For countries across the world, their economies shrank significantly. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics revealed a 9.9% drop in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Although there was a 1.2% growth in December 2020, further lockdowns since then have once again negatively impacted the economy.
As governments are forced to support businesses and individuals during this challenging time, economies worldwide will inevitably take some time to recover to levels seen prior to the pandemic. With limited funding available, many governments may decide that now is not the time to invest in decarbonisation policies. Where investments had already begun, there may be a slowing down of further commitments, as funds are redirected to other areas and sectors.
On the other hand, there is instead the possibility that governments may choose to make this the time to fully commit to greener policies. Having seen the benefits of the natural world and what is possible in such a short space of time when human activity decreases, it may yet prove to be the catalyst for some countries to take the necessary action against climate change, providing they have the economic power to do so.
3. Temporary Changes
Throughout the various lockdowns, people around the world remarked on the value that green spaces and the natural environment provided for them and their families. Our restricted movement and decreased human activity afforded us all the opportunity to pause and become more aware of our immediate local environments. Moreover, it provided many others to reflect on our planet more generally and to consider the impact of our actions upon it.
The positive impacts of lockdown on the natural world, however, were only temporary. Once lockdown restriction lifted, we began to once again see a rise in air pollution, noise pollution and waste.
In some ways, the lockdowns almost served as an unexpected and unintentional experiment. They provided us with a glimpse of what could be possible if, globally, we all committed to creating a more sustainable future, where environmental factors and policies were prioritised. In order for this to be a reality and have a meaningful impact upon the future of our planet, however, we need to make changes to our daily habits, behaviours and attitudes.
The lockdowns caused as a result of Covid-19 have had many widespread negative consequences. However, they also offered us a unique glimpse at an alternative possible future. If we consciously and collectively commit to making lasting changes, there is yet hope that we can reverse some of the damage that our human activity has had upon the planet.
This week, we invite you to reflect upon your attitudes, habits and activities during lockdown. As the restrictions on our freedoms and movement begin to be lifted, what habits and behaviours are you willing to change to create a more positive future?
These don’t have to be big changes or commitments. Perhaps you are committed to reducing your use of plastic going forward, opting for recycled packaging? Perhaps you are going to seek out refills for sanitising gel? Or maybe you will aim to buy locally sourced produce and support local businesses to decrease your carbon footprint and boost your local economy? Maybe you are committed to making more journeys on foot or by bike and reduce your driving?
Whilst there are certainly bigger actions and policies which are required to ensure a more sustainable future for everyone, every small action we take as individuals can help to contribute towards that future. Moreover, it can help shape our collective behaviour and shift existing attitudes.
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