On the other hand, stay-at-home orders will probably cause a spike in population growth. (I mean, what else do you do at home in lockdown for 12 weeks?!) And, of course, population growth ultimately means more pollution and more waste. So, it’s a horse a piece. COVID-19 is only a temporary “fix” for climate change when you consider the ultimate effect of the pandemic.
The pandemic is a global tragedy. The loss of life is horrific. The disruption to our lives is enormous. The economic
The one fact we know is that millions and millions of people will encounter financial instability. Recovering from this catastrophic event will take not months but years, and countless families and businesses will never be the same.
But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. It seems to me we have a golden opportunity to rebuild our society in a more sustainable fashion. We can rebuild with a focus on less waste and less emissions that have driven climate change. Renewable energy is for all practical purposes competitive with carbonized electricity derived from fossils.
So, why not use a more balanced energy source as one of the solutions to solving the COVID-19 pandemic? Won’t a more balanced lifestyle help us return to a healthier environment? Staying with the energy piece for a moment, won’t a transition to renewables, like wind, solar, batteries and the use of electric vehicles, help us slow down climate change?
Take a look at the chart below, which compares energy consumption in selected countries in Europe on April 8 in 2020 versus the same day in 2019. Both days measured average peak hours of consumption. The percentages of consumption were adjusted for the differences in temperature between 2019 and 2020. (Source: Bruegel, ENT50-E)
While this is not conclusive, it is an indicator that emissions have been reduced due to the effects of COVID-19. It is also an indication of what potentially could improve health (pollution) and reduce emissions (climate change) theoretically. At least for now, the pandemic may offer not only health benefits but economic benefits, too: jobs!
The pandemic gives us an opportunity to rebuild in a better, more balanced manner, and maybe we would reduce the possibility of future health crises.
What about solid waste? Has COVID-19 reduced the volume of non-recyclables? If anything, packaging volumes have increased. Therefore, pressure sensitive by-product and flexible packaging by-product volumes are at least the same, if not greater. Municipal solid waste (MSW) is definitely reduced. Just look at the number of waste-hauling trucks on the road!
For sure, the amount of MSW is staggering. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated 268 million tons of MSW in 2017. That’s the official “Washington” figure. I think we generate more and would estimate our volume to be more like 300 million tons. Regardless of the volume, about half of MSW goes to landfill. The other half goes into alternatives such as recycling and energy.
The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) reports that while our solid waste infrastructure is functional, it lacks waste recovery facilities and technologies for separation, hence landfill becomes the most expedient solution. Let’s face it, this is probably due to the low cost of landfill “tip” fees.
In other words, how do you justify enormous investment in automated mechanical separation systems, and chemical reformation and energy recovery if it’s cheaper to send MSW to the landfill?
Fortunately, there are a few communities, or groups of communities, that are committed and have created sophisticated facilities that divert over 80% of MSW from the landfill. So, it can be done.
Since we’re on the subject, I think “zero” landfill is unrealistic. Trickle down from business to community to individuals. Each segment would have to follow specific guidelines and rules. Who will police? What are the true benefits of “zero” landfill? The capital investment alone of diverting 150 million tons of solid waste would be mind-boggling.
“If we used mixed processing on the front end to maximize material recovery and thermal processing technologies as a secondary processing unit for non-recyclable material, we estimate the country would need to spend between $100-120 billion to cover the capital expenditures.” (Gershman, Bricker & Bratton). Let’s get serious, this is just not going to happen.
But maybe the silver lining in COVID-19 is a noticeable change for the better in the air, as it is visibly cleaner. Maybe for a few moments, with less car and truck traffic, there is not only less CO2 but less noise. If COVID-19 teaches us one thing, it is that social distancing has its good points. May we remember them as 2020 unfolds. And may you, your family and business colleagues follow appropriate safety and health guidelines until we solve this pandemic.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is