If there’s a temporary silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been its positive environmental impact. With a third of the world’s population on lockdown, pollution figures have plummeted. China, most famously so far, has seen a 25-percent reduction in carbon emissions, which led to the potential saving of 77,000 lives, according to one Earth systems scientist. And we’ve all seen the images of dolphins reclaiming Italy’s waterways, and goats enjoying empty thoroughfares in Wales. For this Earth Week, apparently, Gaia is breathing a much-needed sigh of relief.
But even the few plusses of this global pause can be deceptive—and they present their own problems, according to Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper, the millennial founders of the Boca Raton-based environmental business 4Ocean. I spoke to them last week for an article that will appear in our July/August print edition, but our conversation also addressed the present pandemic and its ecological trade-offs.
“It goes both ways,” Schulze says. “What’s happening to the environment right now is we’re seeing a massive reduction in carbon emissions due to travel being cut down, and factories and production centers being shut down. National parks and oceans and different protected areas [are] starting to thrive because there’s not human interaction.
“Unfortunately, one of the biggest things we’re trying to push with our social channels is, now more than ever, people are ordering takeout at a massive rate. They’re getting Styrofoam containers and getting single-use plastics, because they want to stay safe, and they want to be sanitary.”
“With everybody putting everything in plastic bags now and wiping everything down and throwing it on the ground and taking their gloves off in the parking lot, that’s all on its way to the ocean,” adds Cooper. “It doesn’t need to be a picnic on the beach to end up in the ocean.”
“It’s a tough time,” says Shulze, “and we’re trying to bring any awareness that we can to make sure people stay safe, but to do so as sustainably as possible.”
4Ocean, which funds global ocean cleanups through sales of merchandise, like bracelets, made from recycled materials, has not been immune to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic; Schulze says the company had to lay off 70 percent of its staff. But its cleanup efforts have continued. Last week its crew pulled a mattress out of a river, and its Bali teams pulled 30,000 pounds of trash from oceans and coastlines during seven days in April.
Shulze and Cooper continue to use their social platforms to urge environmental awareness during this unprecedented time, stressing the responsible disposal of PPE. They call for users to donate extra unused masks/gloves, recycle them as long as they’ve been disinfected and sanitized, order a collection bin from a company like TerraCycle and place the used products there, or drop them into proper waste receptacles.