Adding up the COVID pros and cons

August 24, 2020

The human toll of COVID-19 has been horrific, surpassing 23 million confirmed cases and 800,000 deaths worldwide as of this writing. The economic impacts have been similarly staggering. While many have discussed and analyzed these stories in all manner of ways, the sustainability implications haven’t gotten much airtime.

First, the bad news. As people have sequestered themselves in their homes, they’ve swapped dining out with ordering in. That means lots of prepared foods in lots of containers, as well as cutlery, condiments, and the bag to carry it all. That’s a whole lot of stuff - usually disposable - that wasn’t being used before.

Package - comme ci comme caThe dining-in trend threatens to reverse years of waste diversion progress - the familiar “reduce, reuse, recycle” words in reverse order of value for keeping stuff out of landfill. First, we need to avoid wasteful stuff like unnecessary packaging to begin with; choosing, say, an edible ice cream cone instead of a sundae cup that will go in the trash. Next, we need to use it again as-is, like returning your empties, or washing out a plastic container and using it for leftovers. Finally, we need to put the material back in a manufacturing process to become another useful product, like aluminum cans becoming raw material for new cans, siding for buildings, parts for bicycles, or even wings for airplanes. This last “R” also includes biodegradable stuff that goes into the green bin, like cardboard containers with coatings that break down naturally, to become compost used to improve farm soil quality. 

If the material is still around after those three R’s have done their best, it goes to landfill - a sustainability fail. Styrofoam is a huge culprit. Once upon a time this material could be recycled, but now there’s nobody in that business (at least nowhere close enough to Guelph to economically haul that very bulky and low-mass material). The COVID crisis is producing massive amounts of styrofoam that are going straight to the dump.

The jury is still out on whether the COVID-inspired increase in home deliveries is good or bad. If a truck is fully loaded, a single meandering delivery run could replace dozens of there-and-back-again trips from individual homes and businesses. However, if the trip is one that wouldn’t have been made before, or if it doesn’t fully replace the daily errand run, we’re no further ahead. An example is the increasingly popular ready-to-prepare meal service, like GoodFood. If you still have to go to the store to buy the “generous drizzle of olive oil” called for in every recipe, you haven’t saved a trip at all, and it’s another sustainability fail. (To say nothing of the massive amounts of packaging that goes with such services.)

A third sustainability fail is the increased use of disposable masks.All the material that goes into manufacturing them (although renewable materials like paper fibre and cotton make up at least part of that) is the first issue. The second is what happens after they’re used. If we’re lucky, they only end up in the garbage, heading for landfill along with all the styrofoam food containers. However, many people are just carelessly tossing them on the ground, eventually to be stuck to chain-link fences or wedged in catch basins around town. I for one am as enthusiastic about picking up and binning a used mask as I would be about doing the same with a discarded hypodermic syringe, and for the same reasons. Fortunately more people are realizing that disposable masks are a cash suck, and have opted for reusable cloth face coverings instead. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

Which brings us to some of the good news. As mentioned in our May newsletter, many employers - especially tech companies - are rethinking the whole idea of bringing staff together in an office every day. Commuting takes years off your life. Driving pollutes the air. If an employee lives in one space but works in another, both spaces have to be kept at comfortable temperature and humidity. Every employee that works from home means less office floor space to heat and cool. That creates a compelling business case for telecommuting. The health and personal time benefits are bound to catch the eye of an HR professional working hard to attract and retain employees; lower staff turnover means lower costs for the business.

In the medium term, this trend will mean lots of office space becoming vacant, and ultimately being converted to residential or other purposes. It takes a lot less material - steel, concrete, glass, and so on - to convert an existing building rather than to construct a brand new one. Less material means less emissions embodied in that material. More people will work where they live, and more people will live in spaces where others once worked. As they do, one burden on natural resources will ease. So will the burden on the atmosphere from turning those natural resources into I-beams, wiring, rebar, portland cement, and windows.

The COVID-caused collapse in commuting, and other forms of ground transportation, led to a corresponding drop in demand for gasoline, and the raw material used to make it - crude oil. Oil prices plunged in April, at one point going negative. This has led to a massive retreat from the most expensive forms of oil extraction, as low prices cannot support the high costs of such operations. In the case of the Canadian oil sands, high-cost extraction goes hand-in-hand with high emissions. The combination of low demand and the reduction of high-emissions extraction is bad news for the oil industry, particularly the workers that depend on it for their income. However, it’s good news for the climate.

There’s less commuting on the roads, and less in the air as well. International travel has fallen off a cliff as countries have imposed restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. That’s hit the worldwide passenger airline industry very hard - a revenue loss of US$314 billion in 2020 alone - and for everyone that earns a living from international tourism, whether for business or pleasure. However, air travel is responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and in the fall of 2019 the International Council on Clean Transportation sounded the alarm on a dangerous upward trend in those emissions. The pandemic has broken that trend, and the global curtailment in air traffic has given some welcome breathing room.

In summary, styrofoam containers and disposable masks fall in the con column; telecommuting and reduced travel fall in the pro. However,  the most important positive outcome of this pandemic is learning that, as an entire society, we are capable. Not flawlessly, and not consistently across all nations, but by and large this is a success story for humanity. When faced with a clear and present danger, we learn, we act, we change the way we do things, and we prevail. We are moving into a future where we will change how we deal with energy: we will make more, use less, use it wisely, and plan it away. We will do all this with the confidence that we’ve been down this road before. We came to some huge bumps in that road. We figured out a way past them. Ultimately, we will make it through COVID-19. And we’ll make it through the climate crisis.

Alex Chapman is the Executive Director of Our Energy Guelph. You can check out the entire list of actions that will make Guelph net zero carbon by 2050 here.