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The environmental impact of COVID-19

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During the coronavirus pandemic, many workers are without jobs, public school students are preparing for online classes, and everyone is being asked to wear masks and to social distance. This ongoing health crisis also appears to be having an impact on the environment.  


“Masks make a difference, it is one of the primary, fundamental tools that we have,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. 


While the masks have the benefit of helping protect people from the illness, it’s what happens when these masks wear out that’s causing concern. 


Casi Callaway is the Mobile Baykeeper. She has seen examples of masks and other forms of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE’s, being discarded in a haphazard manner. 


“Every time it rains, everything on the ground ends up in the river,” she said. “Just because you throw it out of the car window on the side of the road, that is not where it stays. The next big afternoon thunderstorm is going to wash it into a storm drain and it’s going to head straight into the nearest river.” 


Callaway said that pollution includes the personal protective equipment people are using to stay safe during the pandemic. 


“The litter includes masks and gloves. So the things nobody should be touching who is not masked or gloved during the time of COVID, people are disposing on the sides of the road more frequently and more regularly” she said. 


Once those gloves and masks eventually make it to the waterways it gets picked up by a variety of animals. Callaway said this could prove fatal for many of them. 


“Those plastic gloves, birds see those gloves as food and it can choke them and kill them. Fish see the little broken bits of gloves and masks as food,” she said. 


It not just on the side of the road. The pandemic has kept a lot of people home from work. These leaves the great outdoors as one of the few escapes people have to get out of the house for a change of scenery.  Folks like Callaway believe greater appreciation for Alabama’s parks and beaches is a positive side effect of the pandemic. But, bigger crowds have their problems too. 


“It could easily be a Catch 22. Because more people are outside, we’re getting more reports of litter, we’re getting more reports of red clay running in the river, we’re getting more reports of pollution issues,” she said.

Credit APR's Guy Busby


Mobile Baykeeper is also a financial supporter of Alabama Public Radio. This problem of growing crowds and the litter they leave behind isn’t limited to the coast or the state’s waterways.  The forest is also seeing an increase in visitors. 


Janice Barrett is a board member of the Environmental Education Association of Alabama. She is also the outreach coordinator for Wild South. 


“Many of them are first time visitors. So people who are coming out to hike for the first time and explore. It's been really incredible to see the diversity of people and the diversity of skills levels of people who come into places where they are not necessarily prepared to be,” she said. 


Barrett said they are seeing their share of increased litter as well. 


“Even into the deepest parts of the wilderness we’ve hauled out stuff like coolers, full sized coolers with wheels on them, crates of bottled water, mattress pads, I mean full sized that you would have on your bed at home,” she said. 


Barrett and her crews are finding a lot rubbish you wouldn’t expect to find.  She said what she isn’t finding is the PPE often found near roads and parking lots. Barrett is concerned that not because people are being careful with their masks and gloves—it’s because they may not be wearing them at all. 


“We see very little social distancing on the trails and where people are camping. I don’t think we’ve picked up a single discarded mask or pair of gloves simply because people aren’t using them out there which is kind of scary,” she said. 


Barrett said its frustrating to see how people are acting while out in the state’s forests and parks. 


“It really pisses me off. We are constantly asking what is the matter with people, what is the matter that somebody would come out to this gorgeous, pristine place and leave dirty diapers and used condoms, I mean everything imaginable, we find out there,” she said. 


Barrett thinks part of the blame comes from the level of experience of the people who are coming outside. She said some of them just do not know how to follow the “leave no trace” model. 


“Many of them are first time visitors, so people who are coming out to hike for the first time and explore. It's been really incredible to see the diversity of people and the diversity of skills levels of people who come into places where they are not necessarily prepared to be,” she said. 


This is where education comes into play. Maggie Johnston is also a board member with the EEAA. She is also the Dean of education for Camp McDowell. They offer both nature and farm schools for young people to learn about the environment and where their food grows. Johnston believes its important for people to learn how to conduct themselves in the woods early on. The pandemic is making that difficult right now. 


“The impacts we have been seeing have been devastating for our kind of programs. The schools closing in mid-March meant that our environmental and farm school closed and we were expecting to have, between the two of them, between four and five thousand children come through them for our three day programs,” she said. 


One of the ways they are working around this is the offer family field trips where parents or guardians can come stay with the children. Johnston says this creates a different kind of learning environment during the coronavirus pandemic.  


“Having mom and dad there with the children could help influence them in a way they might not if it was just the school group, so I’m excited about trying that,” she said. 


Since the farm and nature schools had to close due to COVID-19 and the summer is seeing folks staying home, Johnston said they are making plans to interact with children once schools begin to reopen. It’s taking its inspiration from online classes for youngsters and the ZOOM meetings their parents are sitting through.  


“We’re doing some virtual, which, you think “Environmental education, how would you do that virtually?” We’ve come up with some things like Ask a Farmer, Ask a Naturalist, and having us be live in the classroom,” she said.



Credit Pixabay

There are other ways you can learn to help the environment during the pandemic. One of the most common ways is to reduce the amount of garbage you and your family produce. Mary Liz Ingram talks about that during the “Living with Less Plastic” commentaries she does here on Alabama Public Radio. She says taking stock of what plastics you use is a good place to start. 


“While you’re home, take a look in your bathroom and see how much is in there. That is the room that shocked me the most. Just start exploring some ideas of dental care, or different soaps and shampoos, there are so many options that are available now that are zero waste, they’re plastic free, they work great.” 


Another area where more garbage is being generated because people are eating out to avoid sitting in a restaurants. Ingram says there are things you can do there as well. 



“Go to restaurants that do a good job of being more eco-friendly and maybe they give you your food in paper bags and more cardboard containers instead of Styrofoam.” 


And if you can’t get around that, she says there is something else you can do at diners. It’s sort of an environmental version of hold the pickles, hold the mayo. 


“The easiest one, no matter where you go, is refuse the extras. The sauce packets, utensil packs, straws, any of that extra plastic you don’t have to have, especially if you’re bringing it back to your own house.” 


Every one of the environmentalists we talked to spoke about the importance of leaving no trace and cleaning up as much as you can when you go outside. They all encourage people to go outside during the pandemic. Ingram says putting one foot forward, environmentally, can help break up the monotony of the quarantine. 


“I think mentally it can give you a boost also when the world seems kinda heavy and hectic and a little scary and you can know you’re taking steps to at least be environmentally friendly.” 


And while people are being told to socially distance. Janice Barrett says there is something you can do outside, that you can’t do while social distancing to stand apart from strangers.  


“Don’t forget, you can still hug a tree.”