The Environmental Impacts of COVID-19

We all know from the daily deluge of news reports how the covid-19 pandemic affects hospitals and the economy. But do we know about the environmental impacts of COVID-19? 

The covid-19 pandemic impacts the environment both positively and negatively. Studies note that with more people at home, there is less air pollution. In some areas globally, the lack of tourists means better  quality for bodies of water. However, there is an increase in medical waste, including disposable face masks. 

The reduction in air pollution

The big drop in human activity that began last March has caused a drop in greenhouse gas emissions, as a study published in September 2020 revealed. New York City, the most populous city in the U.S., is a good example. There has been a 50 percent decrease in air pollution in New York. Other cities around the world experienced a similar drop in air pollution. Nitrous oxide is emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and 80 percent of it comes from vehicle exhaust. Nitrous oxide decreased by 25.5 percent in the U.S. this past year. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, nitrous oxide decreased by 54.3 percent and by almost 70 percent in Delhi, India. 

Staying at home means consuming less fossil fuels which decreases greenhouse gas emissions. Oil demand dropped 435,000 barrels globally in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same time in 2019. Coal-based power generation decreased in India by 26 percent and by 36 percent in China. Carbon dioxide emissions in China decreased by 25 percent after two months in lockdown. 

Better water quality

Water pollution is common in developing countries such as India and Bangladesh where domestic and industrial waste is dumped into rivers without being treated. The major industrial sources of water pollution have either greatly decreased or stopped. The Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India are far cleaner because of the lack of industrial pollution during lockdown. Water from 27 of 36 real-time monitoring stations on the Ganga met the permissible limit of pollution. The water quality improvement is contributed to the sudden drop in visitors to the river and the reduction in sewage and industrial pollution. 

Developing countries are not the only ones experiencing better water quality. Researchers used satellite images to look at the water clarity of the Hudson River in New York. What they found is that it had a 40 percent decrease in cloudiness or haziness during the lockdown. After New York City imposed a lockdown order in mid-March, many of the city’s 2.1 million commuters either worked from home or left the city. Fewer people traveling to work produces fewer pollutants that end up in the Hudson River. 

The increase of waste

The increase in hospital patients causes medical waste generation to increase, and that waste is a big threat to public health and the environment. Wuhan, China produced more than 240 metric tons of medical waste daily during the outbreak. That is nearly 190 metric tons higher than normal. In Ahmedabad, India the amount of medical waste generation increased from 550 to 600 kilograms a day to 1000 kilograms a day during the first lockdown phase. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, around 206 metric tons of medical waste are generated daily. Other cities in Asia are seeing 154 to 280 metric tons more of medical waste daily. 

Medical waste is not the only waste increasing because of the pandemic. Municipal waste has increased. Many people globally shop online more due to the pandemic, which increases the amount of household waste from packaging materials. Some places restricted waste recycling activities temporarily to reduce the spreading of covid-19 in recycling facilities. Nearly 46 percent of U.S. cities temporarily restricted recycling programs. Some European countries prohibited infected residents from sorting their waste. Waste sent to landfill globally increased as a result. 

Temporary gains

Any environmental gains achieved due to the pandemic are only temporary. Once people resume normal activity, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will increase. What we can all learn from the pandemic and the environmental impacts of COVID-19 is to be more mindful of the impact our activities have on the planet and look for ways to lessen that impact. 


Photo by Cade on Unsplash