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Is Sustainability Possible During COVID?

The pandemic is forcing us to reconsider our approach to safety and sustainability.

by Jamie Lynne Burgess
September 23, 2020 | Our Future
Discarded blue face mask on asphalt. Rewire PBS Our Future Sustainability
Credit: Tomaspf_ // Adobe

A few weeks into the stay-at-home orders, in the midst of a global crisis that would endanger millions of lives and livelihoods, there was one clear winner: the environment.

As the smog cleared above some of the world's largest cities, the internet was flooded with jokes that "humans are the virus" and "the Earth is healing."

In all seriousness, CB Bhattacharya, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Small Actions, Big Difference, says we've learned one critical lesson from those blue skies: There is unequivocal proof that human activity has a profound effect on the environment and, more importantly, that it is reversible.

"The pandemic is giving us an idea of how much consumption is sustainable," Bhattacharya said. "Maybe we should consume only half of what we consume in regular times — that's an amount that's sustainable."

For individual consumers, however, the pandemic presents obstacles to reducing waste.

Actions that generate less trash — such as bringing your own bags to the grocery store, drinking from a reusable coffee mug, and using washable cloths instead of paper towels — are at odds with preventing the spread of the virus.

Further, practices that have been deemed safer in terms of the pandemic, like ordering takeout or shopping online, are more resource-intensive and generate more single-use plastic.

The pandemic has also made small businesses especially vulnerable. According to Bhattacharya, up to 40 percent of small businesses may not survive due to pandemic-related economic losses.

Avoiding your favorite local places altogether is only more likely to put them out of business — so even doing nothing doesn't feel like a comfortable choice.

What can you do to weigh these choices and find alternatives that balance safety with sustainability?

Recognize success where you can

While it may feel like you've sacrificed some sustainability practices in your daily life, you may have replaced them with more sustainable choices without even realizing it.

Christina Lampert, founder of Sustennial Network, says that the pandemic has led more consumers to purchase whole and raw foods.

"Apples, cantaloupe, a whole watermelon, raw carrots — these foods are plant-based and without packaging," Lampert said.

A plant-based diet is less resource-intensive for the planet, because plants require less water and energy to grow, process and transport than meat and animal products.

Lampert also says that more people are gardening and promoting their efforts on social media. Growing your own food reduces carbon emissions by eliminating the transit from farm to table, and sharing your experiences helps inspire others to do the same.

Gilbert Michaud, a professor who specializes in renewable energy and public policy at Ohio University, calls this type of information sharing "peer diffusion and adoption."

"We're all learning from each other," he said. "In the 'new globalized world,' there's enhanced connectivity. How can we learn from other countries? Even in the U.S., more progressive states have been early adopters of sustainability incentives, and that works on an individual level too."

Illustration of a garden and tiny gardener sitting on a watering can. Rewire PBS Our Future Sustainability
Growing your own food reduces carbon emissions, and sharing your experience online helps inspire others to do the same.  |  Credit: VectorMine // Adobe

As individuals make more sustainable choices and share their practices, this information spreads to others.

Clothes are another resource-intensive purchase that people have reduced since March. The economic downturn is certainly a factor in this trend, but it has created less waste.

"Generally, consumerism has been at a decline since the beginning of the pandemic, and people are embracing buying less," Lampert said.

Other options to reduce waste include using services that provide household items without all the disposable packaging, like the popular waste-free shopping platform Loop.

Looking around the home and evaluating what can be swapped for a more sustainable alternative, like bathroom recyclables, can help consumers feel they are still making conscious, ethical choices.

Conscious consumers create better companies

While consuming less helps you lead a more sustainable life, it's not always a viable option.

Inevitably, you have to make choices — and evaluating a company's support for sustainability and environmental initiatives gives you a chance to choose where to spend your money.

Bhattacharya's book explores the many ways companies succeed when they commit to a sustainable model.

"It has been very clearly articulated that sustainable companies outperform those who are not," he said. "Those companies that do better in ESG (environmental, social, government) … were more resilient during the pandemic."

Bhattacharya also said that companies use cost-cutting measures to promote their sustainability initiatives, like a hotel that doesn't wash your towels each day. Some of these companies pass the savings on to the consumer, like when grocery stores give customers a few cents back for using their own bags.

"What really matters is that they're undertaking the action," he said.

Michaud was likewise optimistic about getting companies to make sustainable changes during the pandemic, which he sees as a "focusing event" that could help spur innovation.

"It's like a dress-rehearsal of what the world could look like if we reduced our miles on trains and cars," he said. "We've taken those examples and used that to push new policies or initiatives. We're seeing innovation everywhere."

Reasons to be optimistic

Michaud emphasized that working from home also meant fewer miles in the car and larger, potentially less-efficient office buildings that can now use less energy for climate control, lights and other functions.

"You can make a difference at different scales … changing out your windows and not using paper towels," he said. "And when you add these up they make a big difference."

On an individual level, it's a chance to challenge our long-held sustainability practices and replace them with new and better ones, while learning to be comfortable with using more disposable wipes or taking a car more often than public transport during the pandemic.

"We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a short-term situation and this is not what the long term portends," Bhattacharya said.

Ultimately, sustainability experts seem optimistic about what we can learn and change through our current global crisis.

"The pandemic is a warning sign," Bhattacharya said. "This is a trial run. It's like Bob Dylan says, 'It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.' I think for our collective good, we're going to build back better."

Jamie Lynne Burgess
Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer who is fascinated by how places shape culture. Get in touch on Twitter @jamburgess or Instagram @jamielynneburgess.
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