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Coronavirus: Can We Still Live Sustainably?
By Martin Kuebler
The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown our daily routine into disarray. Billions are housebound, social contact is off-limits and an invisible virus makes up look at the outside world with suspicion. No surprise, then, that sustainability and the climate movement aren't exactly a priority for many these days.
We don't have to abandon our green habits during the crisis, but some might have to be adapted for the foreseeable future as we continue to learn about COVID-19 and how this new disease spreads.
The following, while not official medical advice, is based on the latest information from health authorities in Germany, the United States, the European Union and the World Health Organization.
It should be considered along with the official recommendations that have stressed the importance of maintaining distance and staying home, if possible — and, of course, proper hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Are foods wrapped in plastic safer?
People tend to view packaged foods as being cleaner and safer to consume, and research firm BloombergNEF pointed out in a mid-March report that "concerns around food hygiene due to COVID-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity." After all, much of the materials used in hospitals are made of single-use plastic, so shouldn't we apply the same standards to our food?
"Plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe," said Ivy Schlegel, a research specialist for Greenpeace USA, in a recent report from the environmental group. Schlegel pointed out that a number of studies, including one published March 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "the virus will persist on plastic longer than almost any material examined [up to three days in laboratory conditions — editor's note], which could call into question the safety of the majority of plastic-packaged items in supermarkets.
"While stores are wiping down and disinfecting surfaces like door handles, shopping carts and checkout card terminals, it's highly unlikely that employees have time to clean every package of pasta or can of beans. Bottled water isn't necessary, either: the European Food Information Council has pointed out that although the "virus can remain active in water for a short period of time," tap water is filtered and disinfected before it reaches the home, "which would inactivate the COVID-19 virus."
That means we can still choose glass or cardboard packaging over plastic. Purchased products can also be left in a separate box in an out-of-the-way place for three days, to allow any traces of the virus to die off. Fresh produce that will be eaten raw can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush and plenty of water; according to Mike Kortsch at Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), that's enough to ensure it's safe to eat, even unpeeled.
Do reusable bags and containers spread the virus?
Amid the outbreak, many businesses have temporarily banned the use of reusable containers and other items — most notably Starbucks, where, until recently, customers with a reusable cup could enjoy a discounted coffee. Some grocery stores have also sidelined reusable cloth bags and containers, over fears these items could spread the virus to other customers and store employees. Some communities are even reversing existing plastic bag bans or postponing their start.
What are the eco-friendly options? Where cloth bags are still allowed, it's probably fine to keep using them. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, based on current research, that it "may be possible" to be infected with COVID-19 from a surface or object with the virus on it, but "this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
That appears to be especially true for porous or fibrous surfaces, like cardboard or cloth. But to err on the side of caution, bags should be washed after every use and kept in a separate place at home once groceries have been unloaded.
If forced to choose between paper or plastic, try to go for bags made from recycled materials. Both kinds have their disadvantages — plastic is most often made from fossil fuels or biofuels, while the production of paper bags uses up lots of water and virgin wood — but at least the paper versions will biodegrade.
Should we avoid grocery stores? Is takeout food safe to eat?
With restaurants closed and so many people stuck at home, the takeout business is booming. It's still a reliable option — the European Food Safety Authority has said there is "currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission" of COVID-19. Heat from cooking kills off the virus, deliveries can be paid for in advance and dropped off at the door, and the risk from packaging is low.
But what about all those plastic containers and pizza boxes? They add up, even if they're made from recycled material. Another way to avoid the problem of packaging and plastic bags — and the anxiety that comes with shopping during the COVID-19 outbreak — is to stay away from grocery stores altogether.
In some areas, for example, local organic farmers and food cooperatives are still delivering.
Vegetarian meals will also reduce the number of trips to the supermarket to buy fresh meat, for those without a freezer, and are better for the climate. Vegetarian and vegan diets generally have a lower carbon footprint than those that favor meat.
Another way to reduce our reliance on the grocery store is to grow food at home. Certain vegetables and sprouts — herbs, radishes, lettuce and microgreens, for example — can be grown quickly and easily in a small garden or on a balcony or window ledge. Compost scraps from veggies like carrots and leeks, among others, can also be used to regrow sprouts.
Does laundry need to be treated differently and disinfected?
Keeping things clean is an important way to stop the spread of the virus; the CDC has recommended that we wash clothing "using the warmest appropriate water setting … and dry items completely." But the additional use of very hot water and electric dryers will increase energy consumption.
"In normal everyday life, people in private households can wash their laundry as usual," said Germany's BfR. And we don't have to resort to harsh, polluting chemicals, since all soaps and detergents can help eliminate the virus. BfR does, however, advise that we treat clothing and other textiles from sick people differently, washing these items "at a temperature of at least 60° Celsius [140 Fahrenheit] with a heavy-duty detergent" and not shaking them out.
We can continue to hang clothes to air dry on a sunny day. Though sunlight can be used to kill off pathogens, according to the WHO, it hasn't been proven effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the virus will find it harder to survive on dry surfaces.
To cut back on laundry, consider keeping a set of clothes to wear outside the house for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Once back at home, they should be removed immediately and stored in a closed bag, to give the virus time to die off. And if using a public laundromat, remember to disinfect laundry baskets and washing machines.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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