From Crisis to Crisis: The Impact of Lockdown on the Environment

Hazel Needham

Hazel Needham

India gate: the environment often improved due to lockdown

Our lives might have come to a standstill, but the world kept on turning. COVID-19 has demonstrated how global action can accommodate a global crisis and how a change in our lifestyles can protect the future of humanity, and the environment. 

Let’s take a look at what staying at home did to the environment and, as the government’s lockdown rules relax, what we can do to prevent another (climate) crisis.

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The impact of lockdown on the environment: RUBBISH

Remember when David Attenborough hit us with the scene in Blue Planet II where a Mumma Whale couldn’t bring herself to part from her calf who died, literally, from our irresponsible disposal of plastic?

Well the world started to get pretty good at reducing its single-use plastic consumption after that. There were campaigns for sea turtles and bans on plastic straws, with parts of the oceans finally on the road to recovery.

Then coronavirus hit.

The long-term impact of lockdown on the environment, as well as a variety of other social and welfare issues, complex and unclear. The more immediate effects, however, are presenting themselves as obviously as if the tide dragged them in.

 Which of course, it did.

 Because really, what we mean by RUBBISH is this…

Plastic bottle in the ocean

 Increased reliance on single-use plastic

  • Masks and PPE. Enough surgical masks are disposed of each month in the UK to cover the distance from here to the moon. And back. That sounds like too many to be sitting in a poxy landfill – so where do these non-biodegradable life-savers end up? Destroying wildlife and polluting waterways. Surfers Against Sewage says it has seen an “explosion” of discarded masks and plastics on beaches and in rivers. 
  • Packaging. Online purchasing has become a saviour in this global crisis (or has it? See our article 5 questions you should ask before buying online). Although a lot of businesses are moving toward sustainable packaging, increased demand for cardboard, which incurred national shortages, puts a huge strain on raw materials and carbon-intensive processes.
  • Disposable cups. At least 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year in the UK. Businesses tried to tackle this figure with the introduction and promotion of reusable cups – hooray! – until reusable cups were banned by many coffee chains last year to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
Photo of discarded mask as negative impact of lockdown on the environment

How to help the environment:

What can we take away from this impact of lockdown on the environment? What can we learn from our increased reliance on single-use plastic?

  • Stop buying disposable!
  • Be conscious of packaging. When online shopping, look for companies with sustainable packaging, much like Goose Studios. 
  • Use sustainable businesses. Look for food products that have the most responsible and conscious carbon footprint, like Nuzest
  • Think about where disposables end up. If you need a chai vanilla iced latte, remember the turtles before opting for a straw!

Travel Restrictions

One of the main requirements of the recent lockdown was to keep travel to a minimum in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But working from home and only visiting the supermarket once a week for a necessary trip benefited the planet as much as it did public health.

The impact of lockdown on the environment: less pollution

Less journeys means less fossil fuels releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Air pollution fell by 50% during lockdown and at the peak of the crisis, global daily emissions of CO2 fell by 17%.

The impact of lockdown on the environment: renaturing and restoration

You probably saw very surreal pictures of dolphins in Venice and wild boar roaming the streets of Milan – but these are the very real impacts of nature bouncing back. Undisturbed and calm wildlife and a lack of tourists allowed noise levels to be reduced by up to 68% in some places in the globe!

What we can do now to help the environment

Travel less. No one is suggesting that we should all stay at home all the time, but keeping unnecessary travel and consumption to a minimum is an awesome way of minimising your carbon footprint.

  • Respect Mother Nature. The fact that she is flourishing without human touch shows that we are not allowing her to flourish when we are using and abusing her!
  • Alternative transport methods. Although the pandemic has had some positive impacts on the environment, these changes are temportat and insufficient without further efforts. Prof Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia says cycling and walking have multiple benefits for climate, for reducing air pollution, and for health.” 


image of a green paper aeroplane

The impact of lockdown on the environment is a lesson.

There have been benefits and drawbacks of staying at home, of rationing what we buy – and we have clearly seen how we can reinvent our lives in the name of a global crisis. In the words of Prof Piers Forster, who published a study about the impact of COVID-19 on the environment:

“For once government, industry and public voices are all pretty aligned that green jobs and green investments are the way to build back better.”

The climate crisis is the biggest threat to humanity that the world has ever seen. To truly learn from the impact of lockdown on the environment, see how you can continue to make the necessary changes and avoid another danger-zone lockdown. 

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