Readings from NASA’s equipment show lower levels of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide over Detroit this spring compared with the same time last year.

Readings from NASA’s equipment show lower levels of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide over Detroit this spring compared with the same time last year.

Photo taken from NASA website

Pollution down, trash up amid pandemic

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published July 7, 2020

METRO DETROIT — Medical experts will tell you that, as of now, it’s hard to say how each patient will react to the COVID-19 virus.

But for Mother Nature, the prognosis is good.

The pandemic shutdown in Michigan meant fewer folks on the roads, less recreational activity and a bit of a slowdown in consumption. While some parts of the environment have gone relatively unaffected by the shutdown, scientists have seen benefits in other areas.

Fresh air
Like the air, for instance.

Susan Kilmer, the unit supervisor of the Air Monitoring Unit in the Air Quality Division of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said her staff has been eyeing air quality reports during the pandemic compared with a year ago.

“We observed that, compared to the same timeframe in 2019, we’re seeing lower numbers of particulate matter and less nitrogen dioxide,” Kilmer said. “We noticed especially at our roadway (reading) site, it was quite a bit lower.”

The obvious cause of the drop in air pollution is a reduction in traffic: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order meant Michiganders weren’t able to hop in the car to head to work, stores, restaurants or most other places where groups of people might meet. Fewer cars means less exhaust.

But really, she explained, that more than reduced traffic, the drop in pollution was likely caused by a reduction in manufacturing, which had been closed until May 11.  

“A lot of businesses and manufacturing facilities and so forth weren’t operating or were not operating at full capacity. Quite a few companies were in reduced production, and we saw less air pollution during that time,” Kilmer said, noting that many manufacturing buildings are located near roadways.

Now that the state has entered phase four of reopening, lots of folks are back in the car and back to work, so consequently, Kilmer said, she expects air pollution numbers to climb. But even a brief reprieve from tainting our air is better than nothing.

“That’s a good thing, whether it’s coming from motor vehicles. It’s better for the environment and better for public health to have less air pollution,” she said.

A similar situation is unfolding in the air traffic industry. The number of flights circling the globe at any given time was reduced toward the beginning of the pandemic, though not by nearly as much as automobile traffic.

Even still, it was noticeable, according to Bryan Duncan at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“When we started to hear about China shutting down, we started looking for changes in the nitrogen dioxide signal,” Duncan said in a prepared statement, noting that the level of nitrogen dioxide had indeed dropped during the quarantine period, and variables like weather, volcanoes and other natural causes of the gas were ruled not to be the cause.

That information isn’t all positive, though.

“We’re looking at changes in nitrogen dioxide to understand how economies are changing,” Duncan added. “If the amount of pollution emitted continues to grow over time, your economy is likely booming.”

He added that the pandemic was viewed by some as a preview of what the world would look like with a largely eclectic transportation system.

Clear water
Have our waterways seen similar improvements in pollutants due to the quarantine? Not really, according to Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.

“I haven’t really noticed any changes in the clarity and condition of our lakes. I don’t really see a big impact (from the virus),” said Nash, when asked if the delay in boat launches might have reduced any water pollution.

“If boats are streaming around on top of the lake, underneath the lake, 30-feet down, they won’t even notice,” he said.

The Oakland County Health Division has already quelled concerns about the likelihood of the virus spreading through water in lakes and swimming pools. In mid-June, the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department opened up its beaches to visitors but opted to keep the water parks closed, since facilities like bathrooms and changing spaces could make it hard to stay socially distant and prevent infecting others.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency echoed that and added that people should feel safe consuming water from their home’s tap or well, as COVID-19 hasn’t proven to be passed through those systems.

Sustainable waste management
Largely, experts are worried about the ways respiratory droplets can be exchanged, and one way that’s done is through touch. That’s why Michigan’s pandemic shutdown saw not only businesses close, but also services like bottle returns.

Roger Cargill is the sustainable projects manager for Schupan, the largest processor and marketer of used beverage containers in the country. After stores take back returnable cans and bottles and reimburse customers for their deposit, they ship the recyclables off to a place like Schupan.

So what happened to all those recyclable cans and bottles that would normally be taken back to the store for cash? Cargill said they’ve been piling up at home, and that’s caused some headaches.

“(Return rooms) were closed by the retailers until three weeks ago. Now, several major retailers couldn’t manage the flow so they closed again,” he said.

The result isn’t pretty. Sorting facilities are doing their best to sift recyclable items out of residents’ regular trash, but it can’t always be done.

“Most recycling processing centers are unable to sort out used beverage containers, so they go as a lower-grade aluminum,” Cargill explained. “For facilities that don’t (sort out aluminum), that material is unable to be returned to the food and beverage supply chain. For the glass industry, they are losing huge quantities of high-grade glass. The resultant glass from curbside is so contaminated that it rarely can be used back in food packaging.”

Does that mean that all that plastic and aluminum will end up in a landfill? Not necessarily. It’s up to people to make that decision for themselves.

“They could store containers until the rooms opened up and redeem them. They could donate the containers to a nonprofit,” Cargill said. “They could throw them away and lose the 10 cents and the supply chain loses the opportunity to keep them in the circular economy. Or lastly, they could put them in their curbside recycling.”