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COVID-19 Pandemic Changes Have Mixed Impact On Northeast Ohio's Environment

Clean-up crews are picking up a lot of masks off the ground, said Paul Klodor of Community Court Service. [Jenny Hamel/ideastream]
Disposable mask on the ground during the pandemic in Cleveland

The coronavirus has changed our daily lives, from the miles we log in our cars to the way we shop for toilet paper. A year after masks became a fashion statement and food delivery added another bag to the single-use plastics pile, what has been the environmental impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Northeast Ohio?

If it feels like we’re generating a lot more garbage these days, we are. With restaurants closed for dining in and now offering only limited seating, people are getting takeout food in disposable containers. Amazon and UPS trucks have become a common sight on residential streets as families get more stuff delivered. And we’re using lots of disposable personal protective equipment. 

Did we create more waste for landfills in 2020 than we did in 2019? No, said Diane Bickett, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District.

“The amount of residential waste, I'm sure went up, but it was offset by the commercial waste going down because things weren’t open,” Bickett said. 

In 2020, Cuyahoga County landfills took in 1.3 million tons of waste, almost exactly the same amount as the previous year.  Recyclables pickups also shifted from businesses to homes during the pandemic. 

“So, that’s just trickier to consolidate that material, when it’s so dispersed,” Bickett said. “To collect it every at home versus to go to a grocery store and collect bales of cardboard or to go to a TJMaxx and collect bales of cardboard.”

In 2019, Cuyahoga County recycled nearly half of its waste, Bickett said, predicting that will go “down a bit,” when the County gets the 2020 numbers.

“The amount of residential waste, I’m sure went up, but it was offset by the commercial waste going down because [businesses] weren’t open,” Diane Bickett, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. [Annie Wu / ideastream]

That’s already the case in Lorain at Republic Services, which accepts recyclables from Toledo, Sandusky, Strongsville and Cleveland.

Republic Services received roughly 350 tons a day in recyclable material in 2020, according to the company’s recycling coordinator, Lisa Beursken. Recyclables from residences went down 12 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and recycling from commercial sources declined 18 percent, according to Beursken.

And because the “Amazon effect” is creating greater demand for delivery boxes, Beursken said local mills need that cardboard to recycle more than ever – but those boxes need to be empty, flat, and clean.

“Just want to remind them, again – polystyrene… bubble wrap – those are the kind of things that we’re seeing still shoved into their boxes,” Beursken said. “But empty, clean and dry is our big push. So we don’t want your half-full Gatorade bottle, make sure you empty it out.” 

The pandemic might not be generating more trash, but it has created a problem when it comes to items not making it into trash cans.

When the coronavirus first showed up in Northeast Ohio, people tried to protect themselves with personal protective equipment.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, “we were seeing lots of disposable gloves,” said Paul Klodor, executive director of Court Community Service, a nonprofit that works with people who perform community service rather than pay fines or serve jail time.

Court Community Service has crews cleaning roads daily throughout Cuyahoga County – and watched pandemic trash change over the past year.

“Gloves have kind of disappeared after the initial couple months, at least after talking to my work crew supervisors, and they've been sadly replaced by masks,” Klodor said. “And I was told by some of my staff that masks are right under bottles, cans and papers.”

Klodor said crews are finding a lot of disposable and cloth masks. If not picked up he said, they can end up polluting Lake Erie.

“One reason why the work we're doing is important is it helps to pick this stuff up before it gets into the drains,” Klodor said. “And unfortunately, litter doesn’t seem to stop. It seems like during COVID, that’s the one thing that didn't really slow down.”

Our water and land have been affected by the pandemic. What about air quality?

There was a 20 percent reduction in airborne pollutants between the spring and end of 2020, said Grace Galluci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), in a December interview with ideastream.

“Auto travel reduced 33 percent between March and the end of [2020]. And there’s not only changes in the amount of travel, the way people travel has changed,” Galluci said. “For example, the travel map was more localized. So less longer trips and much shorter trips.”

Fewer people were hopping in their vehicles because many were staying home or working remotely and frankly, there have been far fewer places to go.

The problem is, those air quality benefits will likely fade away as the pandemic ends and people go back to their normal driving patterns.

The impact of the chain reactions set in motion by COVD-19 have had a mixed impact on the environment. But as Bickett said, while taking care of ourselves during the pandemic is still the first and foremost concern, taking care of the environment is just as important because “they’re directly related.”