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Pollution during Covid-19: What can we learn from this period?

Covid-19 has affected everyday life, but how has it affected pollution? We have heard good news that air pollution has gone down, but plastic waste seems to be making a comeback.

Smoke Coming out of a factory’s chimney. Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

The only piece of good news that came out of Covid-19 seems to be the decrease in air pollution levels around the world. Most air pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels from daily activities like driving cars and manufacturing items in factories, which with most of us staying home due to Covid-19, have decreased. The countries with the most polluted cities in the world – China and India – have seen massive drops in air pollution levels.

This is excellent news as 80% of people living in towns and cities are exposed to air pollution levels that are way above the healthy limit. According to the World Health Organization, many urban areas that are developing can have air pollution levels that are 4 to 15 times above WHO’s guidelines of the amount of Particulate Matter, or the particle pollution in the air, which stands at 10 micrograms per cubic meter for PM 2.5, and 20 micrograms per cubic meter for PM10. It is estimated that 7 million people die premature deaths every year due to air pollution.

However, it is expected that air pollution levels will go up again once the world goes back to business. As lockdown measures have lifted in China in the past month, reports are already emerging that China’s air pollution levels in April 2020 were higher than it was in April 2019. This pattern is expected to occur around the world as factories and businesses rush back to continue operations.

Air pollution is not the only concern during this time.

The amount of waste generated by single-use products during this time is increasing. As part of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker measures, it is now mandatory for us to wear masks when we leave our homes, and the masks have to be discarded after a single use. While the Singapore government has provided and encouraged us to use reusable masks, front-line workers have to use disposable surgical masks to protect themselves from the virus. A number of other equipment used by front line workers also has to be discarded after a single use. This is happening all around the world as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Single-use plastic is also making a comeback during this period due to safety and hygiene concerns. Most notably, Starbucks have banned the use of reusable tumblers and cups and will only sell beverages out of their single use cups out of safety concerns. Many states and stores in America have banned the use of reusable shopping bags, or temporarily suspended the laws that ban single-use plastic.

In Singapore, food and beverages outlets can only provide take-out and delivery services, most of which are packed in plastic containers. In view of this problem, the Singapore government has encouraged people to bring their own reusable containers and cutlery when buying take-out. However, people opting for delivery services cannot opt for reusable containers. This is a major concern for Ocean Purpose Project. As Covid-19 cases started to surge in dormitories around Singapore, OPP started our Food Packing Volunteer Initiative on April 19 to deliver meals to our migrant workers. More than 1200 meals are packed each day into plastic containers and bags and the plastic waste generated from just this initiative is worrying. OPP is actively looking for sustainable packaging partners to bring their products into Singapore to tackle single-use plastic while maintaining hygiene standards.

Covid-19 has opened the eyes of the world to how humans have a profound impact on the environment. The drop in air pollution levels is a great indication that decreased human activities does improve the condition of the environment. While this temporary improvement in air quality is not expected to last, this is a good time for us to rethink how our daily lives are contributing to the pollution of the environment. We can also reflect on how plastic has become such a big part of our lives, and the amount of waste we generate throughout the course of a day. While we might not be able to stop the use of single-use plastic now due to the current circumstances, we can definitely consider switching to sustainable alternatives once we are able to.

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