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The coronavirus pandemic is touching every aspect of our lives, from takeout containers to the air we breathe. Oliver Morrison of PublicSource in Pittsburgh looked at how the pandemic shutdown has impacted four environmental issues. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Morrison about what he found. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Issue 1: Plastic Waste

Kara Holsopple: One issue you looked at is waste. Before the pandemic, there was a growing effort to get rid of single-use plastic, but now it’s making a comeback. 

Oliver Morrison: The one that people are noticing the most is they are ordering a lot more takeout, and getting food from restaurants. A lot of places, like when I go to the Shop ‘n Save now, they won’t even let me use my reusable bags. Giant Eagle has stopped their plan to ban plastic bags, and a number of cities across the country have also slowed or stopped that as well.

KH: The plastics industry is also pushing for this, right?

OM: The plastics industry had made some claims, and they cited some studies saying that these disposable plastics were safer for people. But a lot of the pushback has been that these studies were funded by the industry, and that the virus can live on plastic just as well as it can on anything else. So as long as places are using dishwashers that kill the virus, there shouldn’t necessarily be any difference. But the plastic industry has been making a push to try and be more relevant.

KH: And recycling is down?

OM:  In Pittsburgh, it’s been part of the essential services, so it hasn’t changed a ton. But there are a number of cities across the country where, because they have a lot of workers who are sorting the recycling, they decided that [recycling] wasn’t necessary, and so they just started dumping it. So that’s for residential. 

As you know, many businesses all across the country have closed, and for the recycling industry, one of the ways that they make a lot of their profit is by recycling these bulk commercial business products. So not only are they not getting the product from a lot of houses now across the country, but they’ve also lost out on their biggest revenue sources.

Issue 2: Gas Prices

KH: Another issue you looked at is oil and gas prices. The price of gas at the pump is down about a dollar a gallon from last year. How is this related to oil prices? 

OM: The gas we get at the pump is a refined product that comes from oil. So when people talk about oil prices across the world, they’re talking about an earlier version of the gas that you would get at the pump. Because so many people stopped driving, and there have been so many planes not flying, without that demand, it’s just basic economics.

They have to lower the price [of oil] just to move it. Even with this lower price, and all the reserves, all the oil is being stockpiled across the country in a way that means that the gas price at your pump is probably going to be low for a very long time. 

KH: And how has this impacted natural gas, which we use for heating?

OM: One of the interesting things is that in other places where they make oil, like in Texas, natural gas is a byproduct. But the main source of their income down there is the oil. The idea is that because there is less demand, some of these Texas drillers had to start shutting down their wells, because they’re some of the more expensive ones.

In Saudi Arabia, it’s very cheap for them to get oil. So as there’s less demand for oil, some of these places where it’s more expensive, like in Texas, had to shut down. That also meant that they shut that natural gas they were getting as a byproduct.

But as we know in our region, the natural gas industry is a big revenue source. Because there was less natural gas out there for them to compete with, the price went up. Some of these natural gas companies that were struggling started saying, ‘hey, actually, things are looking pretty good right now.’ But the long term trend is that there’s so much natural gas here that the price keeps going down and down. 

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Issue 3: Air Pollution

KH:  So we talked about the fact that most people are driving less. We’ve all seen the photos of empty roads during what would have been jam packed rush hours, pre-coronavirus, and this impacts air pollution, which is another issue you looked at.

How much has air pollution changed in the Pittsburgh region over the last months?

OM: Well, there’s a couple of different estimates, but some estimates suggest as much as half, especially during rush hour. There was one study at Carnegie Mellon University — it’s not been peer reviewed yet — but someone who’s an expert, Albert Presto, who often looks at this, found that during rush hour, carbon monoxide was down by nearly half. That’s downtown and on the parkways. They had some monitors out in the suburbs and different places, and they found that the driving emissions were down pretty consistently.

But one of the things that he did find was that there wasn’t as much of a decline from industrial pollution. So even though we’ve heard about some reductions at the Clairton Coke Works, and U.S. Steel says that their stacks are the cleanest they’ve ever been, and in April they emitted less pollution than they’ve ever recorded from their stacks before, it wasn’t really showing much in in the air monitors.

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Issue 4: Climate Change

KH: That we’re seeing fewer cars on the road, of course, means fewer carbon emissions. What else did you learn about how the pandemic is impacting climate change?

OM: Well, electricity use has also gone down. That’s interesting, in one sense, because we know that people are spending less time in their offices, but they’re also spending more time at home. But when it flushes out, the amount of energy being saved from the offices and from these industrial facilities is much larger than the amount of extra energy people are using in their homes. 

KH: You pointed out in your piece that this could be an opportunity for people to make their homes more energy efficient.

OM: Right. We’ve long known in the Pittsburgh region that the homes are older. They’re leaky, and there’s a big potential to add insulation, to put in better doors, put in better windows, and to install HVAC systems. That would do a lot to reduce climate emissions and reduce their energy burden.

I think it’s really something that they’re going to look at now, because people are struggling. People have lost jobs. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the economy. If there’s a way that the city can focus on helping people out at the same time as it’s reducing emissions, those may be the strategies that are pursued first.

Electricity Usage Down Across the Region

Oliver Morrison covers health and the environment for PublicSource.
Read his full article here: Four environmental issues in the Pittsburgh region to keep your eyes on in the age of COVID-19