2020 Has Been a Garbage Year
2020 has been brutal. On top of all the climate and environmental crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the world. On one hand, the pandemic has resulted in temporarily reduced carbon emissions and a brief reprieve from our onslaught on the environment. However, it has also brought about a huge increase in waste and in pollution as countries emerge from their shutdowns. We are in a very precarious position, and how we proceed will shape our future.
Here in Canada, we have seen more waste as more people work from home. In Ontario, there were 8% and 5% increases in green bin and household garbage respectively from March to April 2020. This meant 8,300 tons more of residential waste than the year before during that period. In Wuhan, China, medical waste increased from 40 to 50 tons per day to about 247 tons per day in March 2020. The pandemic has resulted in far more plastic being used, for items such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and more. This material could easily end up overwhelming cities, especially since waste collection and recycling have been impacted by the lockdowns.
Countries’ and businesses’ plans to reduce waste, particularly plastic, have run into roadblocks. Thailand had banned disposable plastic bags for major stores at the beginning of 2020 with the goal of reducing plastic waste. Instead, it will rise by up to 30%. Retailers such as Starbucks have had to stop allowing reusable cups, containers, or shopping bags. More and more of what we discard is being brought to landfills instead of being recycled or reused. As the pandemic and these trends continue, it will become increasingly difficult to change course and reverse this damage.
As waste piles up, there are other connected environmental factors to keep in mind. With fires continuing to ravage the Amazon rainforest and western United States, illegal loggers in Brazil have increased their destruction. In Brazil, a country that has been one of the worst-hit in terms of COVID-19 cases, there was 64% more land cleared in April 2020 compared to April 2019. The smoke from these fires in turn add to the burden of breathing issues in the midst of a pandemic of a respiratory illness. This only adds to the pressure hospitals face, and only results in more waste being used up and discarded. Meanwhile, social distancing has resulted in reduced use of public transportation, and there is a major risk of an unsustainable increase in car usage. In China, traffic was back to pre-pandemic levels in June 2020, even with many people still at home. This will only result in further waste from drive-thru meals and car parts.
Now is the time to demand that our governments choose what their priorities are. Will we continue to produce record levels of garbage on a planet already in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, dangerously increasing temperatures, and collapsing ecosystems? Or will we push for legislation and measures that will allow for a green economic recovery and a vast change from the status quo? Either way, we will have to fundamentally change our way of life as we know it.
Bengali, Shashank. “The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-06-13/coronavirus-pandemic-plastic-waste-recycling
Gardiner, Beth. “Why COVID-19 will end up harming the environment.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/why-covid-19-will-end-up-harming-the-environment/#close
Ok, Sik Yong, Christine Sonne, and Siming You. “COVID-19’s unsustainable waste management.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6498/1438.1Waste Advantage Magazine. “Ontario, Canada Sees Increase in Waste Generation During Pandemic.” https://wasteadvantagemag.com/ontario-canada-sees-increase-in-waste-generation-during-pandemic/