How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint During a Pandemic

Balancing the need for personal health and safety with environmental impact can be difficult during a pandemic, when the need for items like single-use personal protective equipment skyrockets. Research in Environmental Science & Technology estimates people used 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves per month during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, adding plastic pollution that will linger for years in natural ecosystems. 

"We need to be extra vigilant of making sure that those end up in recycling bins and not in our roads, or along our waterways, or any other place where they could end up in receiving waters and ultimately be ground down into smaller particles, because the particles don't go away," Dr. Hans Paerl, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, told News Channel ABC 12.

There are small steps individuals can take to reduce their ecological footprints while still prioritizing their health. Public health leaders and policymakers can also craft sustainable responses to pandemics and other public health crises.

“There’s no perfect solution to protect human health in some cases, especially in the short term. You just may have to have a higher environmental impact,” said Evan Parker, programs coordinator for Conserving Carolina. “But I think in most cases you can mitigate the issues to some degree.”

How Has COVID-19 Affected the Environment?

Shifting behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic led to both positive and negative environmental impacts. In some cases, there were tradeoffs. Take Parker’s team at Conserving Carolina, for example: The staff of the conservation organization, based in Hendersonville, North Carolina, has been working from home, meaning they are making fewer commutes to the office and reducing their production of greenhouse gases. However, staff members are still conducting fieldwork.

“We’re not able to carpool because part of our COVID policies is—for good reason—to not ride in vehicles together,” Parker said. “Now instead of people carpooling to fieldwork days, they’re having to drive individually, which maybe offsets some of those gains from not commuting.”

Paerl told the Coastal Review Online that it may take time to fully understand the environmental impacts of decreased travel and business activity during the pandemic shutdowns.

“One possibility is that due to less human activity, there will be a decrease in nutrient inputs, potentially leading to improved water quality. A ‘silver lining’ to the dark COVID-19 cloud,” he said. “Stay tuned, as these systems’ responses will likely take months to gauge.”

Other effects are more obvious. Paerl told WITN he sees surgical masks scattered along the roads where he rides his bike. Each mask will take years to break down.

“Eventually it does get weathered into small bits and pieces that basically don’t go away—not very fast anyway,” he said.

Environmental Impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic 

Positive environmental impacts:

  • Short-term decrease in air pollution and improved air quality
  • Drop in greenhouse gas emissions from reduced travel
  • Temporary improvements to water quality

Negative environmental impacts:

  • Increased waste production, especially medical waste
  • Litter and polluted ecosystems
  • Fewer controlled burns to mitigate wildfires

How to Reduce Your Ecological Footprint During COVID-19

The same rules for reducing one’s general ecological footprint apply to those looking to manage their environmental impact during a pandemic.

“When you look at it from that broad perspective, we’re just going to try to consume less,” Parker said. “Then when you look at your response to COVID, you can just do that in a way that involves consuming less where you can.”

That overarching strategy comes with exceptions, particularly for populations with lower access to items like reusable masks.

“We need to be extra vigilant of making sure that those end up in recycling bins and not in our roads, or along our waterways, or any other place where they could end up in receiving waters and ultimately be ground down into smaller particles, because the particles don't go away.”

Dr. Hans Paerl, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor, Institute of Marine Sciences, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

“It’s not like we can do away with one-time-use masks, but we can move in that direction in a way that’s conscious of some of the barriers that different groups of individuals might have to adopting some of these solutions that are better for the environment,” Parker said.

The suggestions below can help individuals take conscious steps to mitigate their ecological impact in different areas during a pandemic and in general.

Tips for Reducing Your Ecological Footprint During a Pandemic

Food

  • Reduce food waste and compost food scraps.
  • Support restaurants that use eco-friendly takeout containers.
  • Coordinate grocery trips with household members to reduce gas usage.

Transportation

  • Consider working from home to reduce commuting.
  • Reduce plane and car travel.
  • Bike or walk when possible.
  • Take mass transit when safe.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

  • Opt for reusable masks when possible.
  • Dispose of single-use masks and gloves properly.
  • Cut the ear straps on masks.
  • Wash hands instead of wearing plastic gloves, when possible.
  • Refrain from littering.

Solid waste

  • Remember the hierarchy of the “Three R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • First, aim to reduce consumption.
  • Then, turn to reusable items.
  • Lastly, recycle items when possible.
  • Know what types of recycling materials your local waste hauler accepts.
  • Break down boxes and rinse out cans and bottles before recycling.

Cleaning and disinfecting

  • Try reusable cloth wipes for disinfecting surfaces.
  • Separate medical waste, including PPE and disinfecting wipes, from regular waste.

Working from home

  • Use natural light sources.
  • Turn off computer equipment when not in use.
  • Wear climate-appropriate clothing to reduce heat and air-conditioning usage.
  • Weatherize your home to improve heating and cooling efficiency.

Online ordering

  • Try online shopping for groceries and household goods to reduce carbon emissions — many delivery services have optimized delivery routes.
  • Buy items in bulk to reduce packaging and trips.

Understanding your impact

  • Use tools like the Carbon Footprint Calculator to understand how your choices affect the environment.
  • Complete a home energy assessment with your provider to understand how you can reduce energy consumption.

How Public Health Leaders and Lawmakers Can Shape Sustainable Pandemic Policies

While individuals can take steps to address some areas of sustainability, personal actions cannot be effective without broader policy shifts.

“There’s an overfocus on individual action, individual carbon footprint, and it’s a way for corporations, particularly the government, to wipe their hands clean of any responsibility to do things about these issues, which really need to be addressed at the systemic level,” Parker said. “Systemic change comes from individual behavior change and policy change.”

Parker advocates for democratic, expert-driven systems to shape responses to public health and environmental crises in ways that support vulnerable populations.

“When you have really strong democratic systems, then you’re more likely to be responsive to the needs of the poor, the people who are the most vulnerable communities that are going to be the most hard-hit by pandemics and by environmental issues,” Parker said. “Who was hit the hardest by COVID, and who’s hit the hardest by environmental degradation? It’s people of color. It’s the poor. It’s the most marginalized communities in both cases that bear the brunt of these issues even though they’re not the ones causing the issues.”

Lawmakers and public health leaders can help craft programs that protect nature, prioritize clean water, build healthy cities, incentivize clean energy and promote sustainable food systems—policies that could ultimately inspire sustainable solutions for future public health crises.
“We cannot go back to the way we did things before,” the World Health Organization states in the WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19.

Sustainable Pandemic Policy Solutions

Focus on green recovery measures. 
“Cleaner air quality, healthier water, effective waste management and enhanced biodiversity protection not only reduce the vulnerability of communities to pandemics and improve resilience, but [they also] have the potential to boost economic activity, generate income, create jobs and reduce inequalities,” the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) writes.

Build smart cities that prioritize eco-friendly transportation.
Local, state and federal governments should develop smart infrastructure that supports green transportation and walkable, bikeable cities. These measures also cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. “If we had cities that are more walkable and bikeable and you have those options, then you’re able to be outdoors, travel safely and also get where you need to be,” Parker said.

Make reusable PPE more accessible. 
There are barriers to getting PPE, especially reusable PPE, according to Parker. Widespread distribution could be an answer. “As a community we can probably help that out,” Parker said. “We need a much more collective [attitude] to solve environmental issues and human health issues.”

Incentivize renewable energy for homes. 
“You need people to take the steps to adopt these solutions, but you also need governments to put regulations in place that incentivize and move this transition along,” Parker said.

Additional Resources

The following pages offer additional information about sustainability, health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citation for this content: MPH@UNC, the Gillings School of Global Public Health's online MPH program