This Earth Day, Coronavirus Leads To Cleaner Air, But Poses Other Problems

Apr 21, 2020

 


The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is April 22. This year, the global day of environmental action is set against a global pandemic. KAZU News spoke with local officials who are monitoring the effects of the coronavirus on different parts of our local environment, and they had some advice.  

On many levels, the coronavirus highlights what’s at stake for the planet. For one, the air has cleared up.  

“It just doesn't take much other than a look out the window to see how clear it is,” Richard Stedman said. He’s the executive director for the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, which monitors air quality across Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. 

He says the air quality is probably some of the best in decades.

“We're in some really interesting experiment right now where we can actually take a step back in time and see what it was like without the cars on the road,” he said. 

Stedman says transportation accounts for over 70 percent of the air pollution locally. So, now that we can see how clear the air can be, he wants people to really think about traffic this Earth Day. If your car is gas powered, he says take fewer trips or carpool. Better yet, he says consider going to an electric vehicle.

People won’t be staying at home forever. So, there needs to be a plan.

“If we could switch over to electric vehicles, and that's the plan in California and certain air districts, if we could do that, we're going to really see a marked improvement in air quality,” said Stedman.

Clean air can be taken for granted, yet it affects public health and quality of life. 

“That's a really big thing. If you can look out and see the ocean or the mountains, that's really hard to put a price tag on,” Stedman said.  

While shelter-in-place orders have benefited the air, they have posed problems for wastewater systems. Turns out all those anti-bacterial wipes we’re using, the ones that claim to be flushable, they’re not.

Anne Hogan is the wastewater system manager for the city of Santa Cruz. She says it's a big issue here and across the county.

“These wipes are not really flushable. They do not dissolve the way that toilet paper does and they do clog pipes,” she said. 

With shortages in toilet paper, her team immediately increased inspections to prevent any possible stoppages. They also got the word out to the community that these wipes should go in the trash. So far so good at the treatment facility, which treats seven million gallons of wastewater a day through an environmentally-friendly process that discharges clean water into the bay.

 

Santa Cruz wastewater system officials say wipes can create big problems if flushed.
Credit City of Santa Cruz

Problems have also been piling up in waste management. All that panic buying and food storage could result in more food waste.  

Patrick Mathews, general manager of Salinas Valley Recycles, says people should be smarter shoppers.   

“Make sure you're not overbuying or buying material things that have a short shelf life that you can't completely eat up,” Mathews said.

Matthews says food waste already makes up almost 30 percent of the material that’s buried in their Johnson Canyon Landfill. Landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Statewide, food waste represents about 18 percent of what goes to landfills, according to CalRecycle.

 

The head of Salinas Valley Recycles wants people to think about food waste this Earth Day, especially with all of the panic buying the coronavirus induced. Pictured here, a pile of food scraps and food waste.
Credit Salinas Valley Recycles

Salinas Valley Recycles plans to begin operation of a brand new advanced compositing system at their landfill this summer. Still, Mathews says choices at the store matter. And then, there’s the plastic.

“So think about the packaging side of what you're buying. You know, instead of buying a single cup of yogurt buy the, buy the quart tub. The waste side of that is a lot less,” he said.  

“Quarantine projects” have also been an issue at Salinas Valley Recycles and the Monterey Regional Waste Management District. People are cleaning out their closets, and then breaking the stay-at-home rules to drop stuff off at the landfill.  

“Of course, the common response we're getting is they were just going stir crazy and needed something to do,” Mathews said. 

He wishes they’d wait. 

“And so not everybody's happy about it. We're not, we can't police it. We're just trying to encourage people to follow the quarantine rules,” he said.  

So, even this Earth Day, on its 50th birthday, the day of environmental action is online. At earthday.org, you can find virtual protests, online teach-ins and citizen-science homework.

As a note, the Monterey Bay Air Resources District is one of KAZU's many business supporters.