In the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, people stayed inside their homes and waited out what they hoped would be a temporary interruption to everyday life. As the news of rapidly-rising infections and deaths spread, we halted our commutes to work and plans to travel while towns and cities around the world got eerily quiet. Meanwhile, nature bloomed.
The decrease in water traffic in the Venice canals caused sediment to settle, resulting in clear water and sightings of fish for the first time in years. Animals returned to areas previously overrun by tourists, while a global drop in emissions of air pollutants led to cleaner air quality — though the extent to which pollution levels decreased may have been overstated.
These changes in nature arose out of the “anthropause,” a term coined by scientists in June 2020 to refer to the reduction of global human activities when studying the effects of humans on wildlife. Some saw the anthropause as a sign of hope, believing that nature was healing and world leaders could take action to help the planet in the face of climate change.
But the pandemic also disrupted initiatives working to make meaningful progress to help the environment. While governments responded to COVID-19 with the intention of curbing infection rates and kickstarting global economic relief, environmental activists and organizations warned that countries were putting climate action in the backseat when it should have been at the forefront of any changing plans.
Environmental and grassroots organizations have long done the work to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. Government inaction has prevented the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions from being held accountable, so local groups stepped in. They have funded conservation initiatives, organized ecological projects, and fought food waste through donations and volunteer-led efforts.
Faced with social distancing regulations and stalled funding, however, these groups have had to adapt their mission and response mechanisms to a post-pandemic future. To hear more about the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Citizen spoke to three environmental groups about how they are moving forward amid COVID-19.
1. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) is an alliance of grassroots environmental groups, non-governmental organizations, and activists in over 90 countries who are working to build the zero waste movement. By working with waste pickers to pursue zero waste policies and push back against burning and dumping trash into landfills, GAIA is fighting to promote environmentally-friendly trash disposal techniques, as well as advocate for waste pickers globally.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, GAIA knew that the amount of waste going to landfills was going to pick up.
In recent years, governments around the world have announced bans of single-use plastic to limit the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled these efforts, though, as personal protective equipment (PPE) — such as masks and gloves — became necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Experts say the damage of single-use plastics from during the pandemic "will last forever" and that government leaders need to pursue alternative actions.
“Corporations have taken advantage of [the COVID-19] crisis by claiming that single-use plastic is ‘safer’ than reusables, when the opposite is true,” Claire Arkin, the global communications lead for GAIA, told Global Citizen.
GAIA has promoted alternative ways for people around the world to balance public health policies with environmental measures, such as by advocating for reusable masks. “Scientists have continuously stated that reusables are perfectly safe, all you need to do is use soap and water,” Arkin said.
And while GAIA has long supported the work of waste pickers around the world, the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on service workers and people of color reignited the organization’s intent to advocate for a zero waste future using a social justice approach.
“Oftentimes waste pickers are not formally recognized by their municipalities, and so despite providing a critical service for their cities, they do not have a stable wage, worker benefits, or rights,” Arkin said. “If a waste picker or their family gets sick with COVID-19, there is no social safety net to ensure that they have what they need to support their families if they need to take time off of work.”
GAIA launched the Global Day of Action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to underscore the root causes of social injustice and encourage governments to incorporate climate action into their pandemic recovery plans. The campaign puts a focus on the communities and service workers who have been most harmed by “the current make/take/waste economy” to learn how to develop zero waste systems in which governments can ethically and sustainably invest.
“The pandemic has disproportionately affected those already most impacted by racism, colonialism, economic inequality, and environmental degradation. This is no accident. It is clear that in order to address the most pressing crises facing the world today, we must address the root causes,” Arkin said.
COVID-19 taught GAIA that the most effective way to fix the broken system of waste management is to look at the efforts of workers in the informal sector when developing large-scale zero waste plans. The voices of the future are already present in the world — organizations just need to center them.
2. Ocean Conservancy
US-based environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy works to promote healthy marine ecosystems by restoring populations of marine animals, reducing the impact of human activities on ecosystems, and leading volunteer beach clean-ups to prevent trash from entering the ocean.
Like GAIA, Ocean Conservancy quickly realized at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that their efforts would need to adjust to account for the influx of waste piling up, as well as government inaction on climate change.
In their report “Pandemic Pollution: The Rising Tide of Plastic PPE,” Ocean Conservancy documented the growing presence of PPE pollution found on beaches and waterways around the world, causing blockages in wastewater infrastructure and threatening marine ecosystems. The drastic increase in new materials made from plastic showed Ocean Conservancy that a sudden change in daily life can exacerbate existing environmental crises.
To respond to the pandemic — and any future public health threats that may impede their work — Ocean Conservancy reevaluated its manner of removing litter from the environment. Bigger community clean-ups that remove large amounts of waste from coastal areas could not take place, so the organization challenged its supporters to take the mission into their own hands.
“We developed guidance for people to participate in solo or safe, socially-distanced small group cleanups, all while recording their data on our app, Clean Swell,” Janis Searles Jones, CEO of Ocean Conservancy, told Global Citizen. “We also encouraged volunteers to examine their plastic waste habits at home — particularly on the issue of food wrappers, which were the number one item collected at the [2019 International Coastal Cleanup] for the first time ever.”
The pandemic did, however, cause Ocean Conservancy to reaffirm its commitment to another aspect of its mission, which is the need to pass legislation that will protect marine ecosystems.
“Because of the pandemic, this year’s [International Coastal Cleanup] turnout was significantly lower than usual, with a third or less of typical participation numbers. With less people cleaning up fewer beaches and waterways, the overall item count was lower across the board,” said Jones.
With fewer people participating in the beach cleanups around the world, less litter was able to be tracked and removed from the environment. The pandemic underscored the fact that while everyday citizens need to be involved in the fight against climate change, it is ultimately government leaders and corporations that must take action to develop environmental policies.
“We called on our supporters to tell their representatives to pass legislation, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which will help to make a clean, healthy ocean a reality,” Jones said.
3. Universe City
The East Brooklyn-based environmental group Universe City was originally founded as a hub for sustainable agricultural education, where neighbors could gather and learn about subsistence farming.
Cofounder of Universe City Alexis Mena told Global Citizen that before the pandemic they were raising money to build an aquaponics farm to help with their goals, but COVID-19 caused them to pivot to respond to the community’s needs.
The pandemic not only caused more trash to be generated — derailing progress on managing food waste and causing landfills to overflow — but also threatened access to necessary resources, such as sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Lockdown restrictions led many schools and food pantries to close, while disruptions to the supply chain increased food insecurity globally.
Prior to the pandemic, Mena also worked as the farm manager at the hydroponic farm located at Brownsville Collaborative Middle School in Brooklyn, New York. When the school said it was going to shut the project down due to COVID-19, Mena realized that families who relied on the farm would lose access to fresh produce.
After partnering with City Harvest, a food rescue organization in New York City, Universe City joined the thousands of mutual aid initiatives taking place around the world that began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and redistributed 2.7 million pounds of food to their community in East Brooklyn.
“Universe City is not a mutual aid group, but we acted as one by taking on this labor despite not doing what we were supposed to be doing, which is growing the food,” Mena said. “COVID-19 forced us to pivot in a way which we’re thankful for in the sense of being able to provide for our community and to be able to prove to ourselves and others that we can manage 2.7 million pounds of food.”
Now that Universe City has been able to fund and build its aquaponics farm, it is looking to the future to build off its initial goal of educating the community about subsistence farming while providing access to fresh produce to its neighbors.
“Food sovereignty is always at the heart,” said Mena. “That’s the goal, that is the main mission. But how can you talk about food sovereignty when people are starving?”
“My hope is that mutual aid groups, nonprofits, and for profits that benefit people are working on long-term, sustainable solutions,” Mena said. “[Universe City] is looking at how we can take the same methods we implemented in 2020 and make them sustainable and not just temporary solutions.”
The biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic are that communities must be centered in times of crisis and that governments need to make big investments in environmental policies that will create a more equitable and sustainable world.
For far too long, everyday Global Citizens have shouldered the burden of developing and implementing environmental actions when legislators refused to — tackling waste build-up, removing litter from the environment, and increasing food access to communities in need.
The link between climate change and COVID-19 is clear — there will be future public health outbreaks. Environmental groups became first responders for their communities and adapted their missions to reflect the reality of environmental and social injustice, but they cannot be the only ones to learn from the pandemic.
Government leaders have the opportunity to change the world at COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. They must devote themselves to making significant progress on climate action before it’s too late. You can join the movement of Global Citizens around the world taking action through the Global Ciizen Live campaign, to call on world leaders to defeat poverty and defend the planet here.
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.