Desperate to escape the anxiety of the economic and health havoc that Coronavirus is wreaking, I was grateful one recent morning to open my laptop in my home in Israel and be greeted with an image of clear blue waters flowing through Venetian canals. Above the photo were the words, “Venice today after the 6th day of quarantine. Never in the last 60 years has the water been so clear and beautiful.” Aha! I knew there had to be a silver lining somewhere. Boats, cigarettes, beer caps, and food wrappers – all these are missing when people aren’t about. The water didn’t look nearly that clean when I visited Venice nearly 10 years ago. Coronavirus sanctions have drastically reduced the number of people outside. My block is mostly empty of pedestrians. No new plastic bags or coffee cups have been thrown onto the street or nearby vegetation. The environment has taken notice.
Cars and public transit abound in Israel, but once a year environmentalists are given a unique opportunity to study the consequence of all those modes of transportation largely coming to a halt – on Yom Kippur. The results are astounding, but not shocking: nitrogen oxides plummeted in Tel Aviv by 94.5 percent last Yom Kippur (NOx gases, which are created in part from burning fuel, form to create smog and acid rain, among other things, and are associated with adverse health effects). The levels in Jerusalem and Haifa plummeted even lower. The current situation caused by the coronavirus has created a comparable environment; here in Israel, most people are on partial lockdown and are only allowed to leave home when necessary. Public transportation now ceases after 8pm on weekdays and does not run at all on weekends, and even that will probably become further reduced in the coming days. Carbon monoxide levels caused by cars in New York are half of what they were at this time last year. It’s safe to say that this has been good for healthy air levels, but also that this is a short term boon. When the virus stops spreading (may it be soon!), things will go back to normal as people return to work, tourists start traveling again, and people once again attend social gatherings and events. Driving around will become a treat when we can fully appreciate the freedom to go where we please, when we please. But there are easy changes we can make in our lives now that will have a long-term positive impact on our environment.
On a large cooking group on Facebook, there was raffle recently advertised that promised the winner 250 settings of disposable dinnerware. “Don’t spend all your time washing dishes!” was the bright introduction. “Instead, leave plasticware in the landfill for your great-great-great (to the x exponent) grandchildren to find.” Okay, that second part wasn’t there, but that’s what I read between the lines. With the climate crisis being what it is (and, please G-d, may we go back to the days where that is the main global crisis), we need to take a look at our habits and decide if saving 15 minutes of our time today is worth the environmental consequences. Despite the short-term benefits that planet Earth is currently experiencing, there are things that those in all communities can do in our daily lives to reduce our footprint for the future. Now that we see how quickly the environment responds when we reduce our output, we can perhaps find more motivation to do our part.
Drinking once from a cup and then throwing it in the trash does make your kitchen look cleaner, but it’s a scourge for the Earth. “Out of sight, out of mind” might apply to dropping that small candy wrapper on the ground, but it doesn’t make it disappear. Throwing garbage in the direction of the dumpster most likely means it won’t be picked up by the garbage men and will be sitting there until somebody decides to throw it out for you (okay, maybe I’m just talking to my kids now). In an extreme example, a neighbor told me several years ago that they didn’t even own real dishes. Every meal in their home is eaten on disposable plasticware. We recently had guests for a Shabbat meal and ate off of real dishes. One of the guests commented, “I feel like royalty!” It really does feel more dignified to use real dishes. And yes, I have several young children who eat. Yes, occasionally we’ll use disposables (such as my daughter who is going through an “I-don’t-like-the-taste-of-metal” phase). Yes, I do spend a lot of time washing dishes. But I’d rather spend time washing dishes now than have people hundreds of years from now trying to figure out what to do with all the garbage I left behind that won’t disappear. So, what can we do to simplify things without feeling like we’re slaves to the sink? Here are a few tips I’ve procured over the years:
- Eat a meal on real dishes at least once a day. Designate someone to wash the dishes, or invest in a dishwasher. Get a dishrack so you don’t need to dry them right away
- Put aside the money you’d spend on disposables in a month to buy something nice for yourself
- Whenever possible, buy biodegradable or paper disposables, and reuse plasticware or other items that would otherwise be thrown out
- Instead of using disposable coffee cups each morning, try cutting it down to 3 or 4 times a week
There is so much more we can do, but starting small is a big step in the right direction. And hopefully, when this current crisis blows over, the world and the health of future generations will be a little better off than it would have been. And we’ll be able go outside and enjoy our beautiful planet as it is, as it was intended to be.