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It is time to take climate change seriously, post-pandemic

It is time to take climate change seriously, post-pandemic

It is time to take climate change seriously, post-pandemic
April 30
14:29 2020

As people stay indoors, leave cars in driveways and avoid any sort of contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, the environment has healed in the spaces we don’t constantly occupy at the moment.

Venice canals run clear water and wildlife is flourishing, the San Antonio River Walk water isn’t gray, Los Angeles smog has disappeared from the skyline and wild animals wander the streets of Thailand, Italy, Chile and India.

This movement of “nature reclaiming the world,” as viral tweets and photos proclaim, has become the rallying cry for environmental activism over the past month. Don’t get me wrong, seeing nature retake the spaces humans have built and ruined upon is a win in the fight against human-driven, environmental destruction, but it also points out the less obvious denial we’ve all been shying away from.

The understandable anxiety and fears from the COVID-19 pandemic are not to be diminished, but nevertheless, these viral moments of “nature reclaiming the world” reveal the potential for environmental change post-pandemic in regard to our global carbon emissions and the high-volume usage of plastic within our medical industry.

Countries with public health measures have seen a drop in carbon emissions during the short period of social distancing and cutting unnecessary travel. In China, carbon dioxide emissions fell 25 percent at the beginning of the year after stay-at-home orders were established. Between January and March 2020, there was a 20-30 percent increase in “good air quality” days within 337 Chinese cities, according to a report from China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

Nitrogen dioxide levels in northern Italy have decreased by 40 percent since early March. The region is known as one of Europe’s air pollution hotspots, where a large number of factories are based. Nitrogen dioxide is produced from car engines, power plants and other industrial operations that can cause significant damage to respiratory systems. Although not a greenhouse gas, the pollutant shares its origins with them and is from the industrial sectors responsible for a large share of global carbon emissions.

For comparison, transportation makes up 23 percent of global carbon emissions, with driving making up 72 percent and aviation travel making up 11 percent of the sector’s carbon emissions. With people staying at home and airplanes being grounded across the world, the atmosphere is getting a small reprieve from the constant influx of greenhouse gases.

With the pandemic gaining momentum in the U.S. and other nations, healthcare systems are nearing their capacity and an often overlooked, but essential aspect of healthcare is the usage of single-use plastic. The medical industry has a long history of using single-use plastics due to their necessary sterilization, durability and inexpensive manufacturing.

A 2015 study found that a single hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus, can produce up to 20 pounds of waste, most of which is plastic. More than 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually around the world and approximately 50 percent are disposable products discarded within a year of purchase, a report from Arizona State University researchers found. There is currently no organization that monitors the amount of waste the medical industry produces in the U.S., but the non-profit Practice Greenhealth estimates that 25 percent of medical waste produced by a hospital is plastic.

The disposal and treatment of medical waste pose a number of environmental and health risks, from the mass-production of medical equipment to the disposal. Untreated medical waste can lead to water contamination, toxic exposure, air pollution and other various health risks outlined by the World Health Organization. Disposing medical waste in landfills can release potentially harmful chemicals into the environment as well as sharps-related injuries from needles not properly disposed of. Incinerators can release pollutants and toxic metals, such as carcinogens, greenhouse gases, lead and mercury into the environment.

If COVID-19 continues to spread, hospitals, waste distributers and treatment centers could be overburdened with the sheer amount of medical waste and could result in the spread of the virus to workers, a report from the Los Angeles Times found.

Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of solutions to these issues, but taking these necessary steps means actively discussing them to local, state and national governments as well as sparking community action to protect the health of its citizens.

Revamping environmental regulations and holding our highest carbon-emitting sectors accountable for their actions are the first steps in taking climate change seriously after the pandemic.

Within the medical industry, reusing and sterilizing items capable of being reused without risk of contamination, such as surgical trays, could reduce waste by several tons annually. Implementing biodegradable plastics can cut the usage of conventional, petroleum-based plastics and lessen their long-term impact on the environment.

However, the possibility of hospitals being completely “zero-waste” is very slim, but taking the steps to lessen the industry’s carbon footprint and plastic usage is vital for the safety and health of current and future generations. Various other options for hospitals and healthcare systems have been outlined by Practice Greenhealth in an effort to promote sustainability and public health for future generations.

In an effort to promote sustainability, individuals can take inventory of their transportation, food and plastic consumption to make concessions on personal usage. Using public transport, walking to work or class and looking into other cost-efficient options are small, sustainable steps toward lessening individual carbon footprints. Using reusable bags, towels, water bottles and other items can cut back on plastic consumption and get rid of those random plastic bags in the back of your pantry.

“Nature reclaiming the world” is a lovely sentiment for environmentalism, but the fact it’s taken a devastating, global pandemic for people to see climate change as a real and foreboding thing is shocking.

Nevertheless, seeing nature weave its way back into our world, even during a pandemic, is a small upside to all of this. It’s time to take climate change seriously post-pandemic instead of denying the growing hazards communities face every day.

Featured Illustration: Isabel Balabuch

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Sarah Berg

Sarah Berg

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