Like many, my antidote for the cabin fever caused by COVID-19 was to simply walk out the door. I'm fortunate to live close to some beautiful woodland trails, but as I hiked one for my early morning trek, I saw that the pandemic had reached even my pristine corner of the world.
Stepping around the plastic gloves and masks littering my path, the stroll that started as an answer to my daily isolation instead inspired serious questions about the pandemic's toll on our world.
Here I was walking on a morning more than fifty years after the birth of the environmental movement, at a time when every generation calls louder than the one before for the green products and practices that are their best hope for inheriting a sustainable world. Yet the masks and gloves lying in the dirt were made from the plastic fibers and synthetic polymers long identified as ecological threats. Why hadn’t environmentally-friendly products been provided to protect us instead of the disposable stuff I stepped around?
And what about the other components of the pandemic's protective arsenal:
the disinfectant wipes and plastic bottles of hand sanitizer stashed in every pocket, purse, and home? Or the industrial-sized supplies of both—delivered to hospitals, businesses, and other organizations worldwide? Labels on these materials boasted of their power to kill germs. But they conveniently missed mention of how the trash they left in their wake could do the same to the planet.
As I walked on, I thought of even more examples of pandemic pollution: the shields, goggles, gowns, and other articles of personal protective equipment being donned daily, not to mention the plastic packaging required to wrap the surge of these and other supplies delivered to our doors. I wondered what would happen to the stockpiles not delivered, sequestered in warehouses across the globe. Were they to become a new wave of trash in the aftermath of the next surge in cases?
When I began to multiply this growing list of waste by the billions of people it was produced to serve, my head really started to spin. It was a challenge to wrap my mind around the full global scope of this problem.
Then that sea of numbers cleared for yet another question: Why hadn't I seen a single news story about the ecological problem so apparent beneath my feet? A lot of ink was certainly spilled on the countless ways COVID had turned our world upside down. Didn't its impact on the planet deserve a newspaper column or two?
All these thoughts led to my last one on that walk. It's one I find especially puzzling today, two and a half years after the appearance of COVID, at a time when the U.S. is transitioning out of the pandemic phase: Why haven't any of the thousands of registered, nonprofit environmental organizations in this country asked these questions publicly?
After thirty years of promoting sustainable agriculture through both my work on public policy and the implementation of Tierra Farm's corporate practices, I've made many contacts with these organizations' leaders. But even the personal calls I made to ask these questions granted nothing more than sympathy for my desire to answer them. Where was the sense of urgency and outrage this catastrophe called for?
So now I'm left with other questions, perhaps the most unsettling of all:
Are our environmental leaders living up to their mission to serve as the checks and balances on the corporate interests that have pushed our planet to the edge of ecological collapse? Or are they now falling under Big Business' sway in the same way our political leaders have been compromised? Is the destiny of the agencies charged with protecting our planet the same as those charged with protecting our democracy? Are the forces currently threatening to tear our country apart destined to do the same to our world?
I can't answer these questions, so I'm starting an initiative that I hope will. I'm creating The Pandemic Pollution Project (PPP) along with others eager to find the statistics and stories that point to COVID's true environmental toll. More importantly, the PPP will attempt to discern how our political, economic, and social systems react to the events that create massive explosions in pollution. So we can weather whatever future crises arise without igniting environmental ones in their wake.
I don't know what answers we'll ultimately discover with the PPP, but digging in to find them has provided a response to the first question I asked when I saw that garbage on my morning stroll. It's one I'm hoping others will ask as well.
What can I do to help uphold the environmental practices critical to sustaining our world?