Is The Coronavirus Lockdown Good For The Planet?

Food waste is out, but plastic gloves are in. Here’s what the pandemic is doing to our environmental credentials.

We’re here to guide you through the coronavirus lockdown. Sign up to the Life newsletter for daily tips, advice, how-tos and escapism.

Coronavirus has changed our daily lives beyond recognition; we’re driving less, connecting digitally and baking banana bread like our lives depend on it. Because of this, our environmental footprints are changing, too.

Early reports suggest global greenhouse gas emissions have been slashed and air quality improved thanks to factories closing and fewer planes in the sky. It’s too early to say what the overall environmental impact of lockdown may be, but Miriam Turner, acting CEO of Friends of the Earth, is optimistic that future data will show we’re living greener lives in our homes.

For starters, many of us are wasting less food, as we carefully plan meals to reduce supermarket trips. Pre-lockdown, more than 10 million tonnes of food were binned each year in the UK, pointlessly taking up fresh water, land and labour to produce. “People are being much more conscious of what’s in our fridges now,” says Turner. “We’re looking up recipes to use up the ends of stuff and being more conscious of what we buy.”

Global food waste generates around about 8% of the total human-generated greenhouse gas emissions each year, which Turner describes as “a big chunk” of the overall emissions globally. “If we can start eating into that chunk, as it were, that would be a really meaningful thing that people can do on a household level,” she adds.

With thousands of people across the country working from home, we’re also clawing back the environmental damage caused by commuting. Add to that the limits on weekend travel, and initial data seems to show car emissions have dramatically fallen. Research from AA suggests the UK lockdown has led to a 60% drop in weekday journeys, a 70% drop on Saturdays and an almost 80% drop on Sundays. Turner is hopeful the move away from cars will stick.

Nozomi Inoue via Getty Images

“Motor vehicles are a major source of pollution and emissions, and with people walking and cycling more – obviously while following government advice for local shopping and exercise – that gives us the experience of what that feels like, and that it’s enjoyable and possible,” she says.

Working remotely indefinitely is unlikely to apply to everyone, but Turner believes it may be possible to have the best of both worlds in the future, by cutting down on the days we commute and giving workers more options.

“Many of us are using technology that we may not have used before, so it shows we can live and work in different ways,” she says. “Let’s hope holding some meetings online can continue, to reduce travel even when restrictions are lifted. That could save money and cut pollution at the same time.”

Individually, there may be other ways you’re being more green in quarantine. Perhaps you’re buying less fast fashion, no longer grabbing your usual coffee in a disposable cup, or not getting lunch-on-the-go in plastic packaging.

cienpies via Getty Images

Of course, not every element of lockdown is environmentally friendly. Some of our recently-established green habits may have fallen by the wayside as our attentions are focussed elsewhere. We’re all feeling drained, so researching and purchasing the greenest possible products is not top priority.

You might also be throwing certain packaging straight into the bin instead of the recycling box, because of concerns about contamination. Or, you may be buying more single-use plastic items, such as plastic gloves.

While we’re all trying to make fewer trips to the supermarket, some of you could be using more freezer bags than usual – and therefore more plastic – to store your shopping. Or, if you’re opting for home supermarket deliveries, there are likely to be lots of plastic bags that arrive on your doorstep, when we’ve all become so accustomed to reusable ones.

Much has also been said about the environmental impact of online streaming, as we spend our days on video meetings and evenings binging Netflix. But even considering these factors, Turner believes the scales may be tipping in the right direction when it comes to our green habits.

“The latest papers suggest some of the previous reports on the carbon impact of streaming may have been over-egged,” she says. “I think it would be hard to say that, on balance, it wouldn’t be a net positive to have people travelling less and working from home more. Emissions-wise, transport infrastructure is a really big one.”

wetcake via Getty Images

Turner is also unconcerned about single-use plastic gloves and says, by far, the bigger plastic challenge is the increase in household waste, with many of us spending the majority of the day in our homes.

However, she points out that seeing our bins rapidly fill up is not a bad thing, as it increases awareness about the waste usually hidden at our workplaces and favourite lunch hangouts.

“Things are becoming more visible and more obvious to us,” she says. “Now, we’re our own baristas and sandwich makers and it’s right in front of us. It might be a good thing that we become more conscious of the waste a whole house generates in a day.”

Post-lockdown, we might feel more compelled to act on this knowledge, thanks to our new-found love of nature. HuffPost UK spoke to readers who say spending large stints indoors has revived their appreciation for the natural world – they are noticing bees, butterflies and birdsong with renewed enthusiasm.

Enduring a global pandemic is not the way any of us would have liked to learn environmental lessons, but one tiny glimmer of hope is that we may emerge with a revived urge to protect what we have.

“This is a reminder that we’re all in this together and we’re part of one community,” says Turner. “I think we’ve learned that having an attitude of kindness, resilience and adaptability are the qualities that will see us through this – and those are the qualities that we need to deal with other global crises.”