Blue skies, less waste: Covid-19 and the MCO's effects on the environment

Cleaner air and clearer skies are one of the effects of the MCO. Photos: Filepic

When Dr Jamie Chong opened her window one morning during the movement control order (MCO) period, she was greeted by unusually clear skies and clean air.

“Friends have also forwarded me photos of noticeably cleaner rivers, clear and unhazy skies taken from balconies, and even videos of otters playing by the Putrajaya Lake, ” says Chong, who is the director of Asia Pacific Environmental Consultants.

There are figures to back up the anecdotal evidence: The Air Pollutant Index showed a 14% increase in the number of days with “good” air quality during the MCO, according to the Department of Environment (DOE). This is a result of fewer vehicles on the road and less industrial activity, says the latest report issued by the Environment and Water Ministry.

Also, eight (28%) of 29 water monitoring stations showed an improved river water quality index (WQI). That number might have been higher but frequent heavy rainfall contributed to soil erosion and a subsequent decline in WQI in other locations. DOE also noted that reports from other parties have shown significant improvement in WQI upstream or off the river basin housing the 29 stations.

During the MCO period, noise pollution has decreased and the sound of birds has become more apparent.During the MCO period, noise pollution has decreased and the sound of birds has become more apparent.

Other positive effects noted are improved noise quality with the sound of birds more apparent, reduced solid waste in commercial and industrial sectors, as well as a respite for biodiversity and wildlife, including fisheries, since activities in sectors affecting all these are restricted during the MCO period, notes Environmental Protection Society Malaysia president Nithi Nesadurai.

But how long will these positive effects last?

“When the MCO is lifted and economic and human activities return to business-as-usual, some believe there may be a surge due to pent-up demand over the past several weeks, ” Nithi says.

According to Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish, this is because certain industries may double up operations to generate more income to cover revenue lost during the MCO period.

However, Nithi believes that the continuation of activities will be more gradual: “Some SMEs (small and medium enterprises) as well as some individual livelihoods may have been adversely affected permanently and might not return.”

The pandemic and MCO have also had some negative effects on the environment such as an increase in household waste, thanks to most people staying home in compliance with the MCO.

“Factors that cause the spike in household garbage include packaging from ordering food delivery and online purchases since people can’t go out, ” Faizal says.

Household waste such as food packaging has increased due to more people ordering food delivery.Household waste such as food packaging has increased due to more people ordering food delivery.

However, the increase in household waste is evened out by the decrease in commercial, industrial and institutional waste because these sectors (including factories, businesses, offices and schools) have had to close during the MCO period.

“The overall increase in household waste hasn’t surpassed the waste generated by these other sectors, and some landfill operators have revealed that the amount of waste entering their landfills has dropped 10%-30% per day since the MCO was implemented, ” Chong notes.

Another category of waste has also increased: medical waste. According to Faizal, hospital waste has increased 15%-20% during the pandemic.

But medical waste is classified as “scheduled waste” and is disposed of only in approved facilities such as Kualiti Alam where it is incinerated. Most large government hospitals also maintain an incinerator, Nithi says.

“Some related wastes such as face masks and sanitiser bottles are, however, ending up in the rivers, most likely from the public or commercial premises, ” Faizal notes.

There are also more chemicals being used nowadays for disinfection purposes during the pandemic.

But Nithi reassures that these disinfecting solutions have been approved for general use and have relatively short lifespans, disintegrating rapidly in the environment so they are not an issue in the long term.

Although household waste has increased, commercial and industrial waste has decreased because businesses and factories are temporarily closed during the MCO.Although household waste has increased, commercial and industrial waste has decreased because businesses and factories are temporarily closed during the MCO.

Chong also says that some public disinfection exercises carried out by local councils are now utilising less toxic chemicals.

Licensed pest control and hygiene manager Kennedy Michael who has been employed to disinfect some spaces, for example, uses eco-friendly chemicals: “We are using an approved Ayurvedic proprietary disinfectant of botanicals, sugar-derived alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, which is less toxic to the environment and human health, ” Michael says.

Chong adds that more Malaysians are seeking safer alternatives where household disinfectants are concerned: “Most Malaysians are an educated lot and some households prefer to use environmentally-friendly, essential oil-based disinfectants rather than harmful ones, and these nature-derived solutions would not adversely impact the environment.”

As Malaysians self-isolate to curb the spread of Covid-19, there are both positive and negative impacts on their carbon footprint.

The Covid-19 crisis appears to be a wake-up call to humanity to lead more environmentally sustainable lives. The Covid-19 crisis appears to be a wake-up call to humanity to lead more environmentally sustainable lives.

“When people spend more time at home, they use more energy. For example, we may be using air-conditioning, fans, computers and other electronic devices more while working from home, and this significantly increases one’s carbon footprint, ” Faizal explains.

But there are many things that you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.

Chong gives an example: “In my neighbourhood in Bandar Kinrara (in Puchong, Selangor), we band together and try to buy in bulk whenever we can. This lessens transport movements in and out of the housing area, which reduces carbon emissions. It also reduces wastage, as there isn’t a need to fulfil minimum orders nor stockpile.”

She adds that the residents also barter traded food items that they overlooked to order. “Not only are we experiencing an amazing community spirit but we can also reduce our carbon footprint at the same time. Of course, during the MCO period, all this can be done ‘contactless’, ” she says.

Nithi, Faizal and Chong concur that life will not be quite the same following this unprecedented event of the 21st century.

“This crisis will hopefully awaken everyone to have a better understanding of the relationship between humankind and the environment, and encourage people to take positive steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, ” Nithi says.

Faizal feels the situation serves as a valuable lesson: “It’s a valuable reminder to all Malaysians to change the way we do things to be more environmentally sustainable. For example, companies may be more willing than before to let employees work from home, thus reducing traffic and ensuing pollution, or more meetings may be held online to further reduce travel.”

The MCO has shown us in less than a month how the environment started to heal on its own, Chong points out. “The question is whether Malaysia will return to what life was like before or will we take steps to live more responsibly towards the environment.”

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