#TheReset-We cannot build back better if we don’t put our environment at the heart of it.

Ian Humphreys is the Chief Executive of Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

The Reset is an apt description for the type of change that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to us over the past six months. Our lives have been changed and priorities re-evaluated as we grapple with an uncertain future. For the environment sector, we have long argued (perhaps too meekly) for a new way of doing things. Our lifestyle of increasing carbon emissions and ignoring the consequences of waste has caused real harm for our environment, both now and well into the future.

At the height of lockdown, we saw the rivers clearing in places like Venice and falling levels of pollution across the globe as traffic disappeared almost overnight. People spoke about how nature was healing itself. Yet we all know that lockdown was an exceptional and unsustainable long-term approach to the pandemic. However, there are aspects of new thinking that we need to continue with if we are to reset the essentials of how we treat and value our fragile environment.

We’ve all had our ‘wobbbles’ and felt the emotions, stresses and strains caused by the pandemic, as we forcibly had to adjust to very different ways of working which, for some, were nigh on impossible: how did parents working from home with young children running around manage? During these anxious and stressful times our local parks and green spaces provided an essential safety valve. We could go out and reconnect with nature. As everything in the world changed around us, the one constant all of us had was that our local parks and country walks would be there for us. Every day these special places gave us time to exercise, take a break from the mounting bad news and have some distanced engagement with other people. So protecting our parks and recognising the value in maintaining and investing in them is something that we have to place a greater value on in the years ahead. Science had already proven their benefits for mental health and overall well being; the difference now is that many of us have all experienced it personally.

We have also seen the opportunity to relegate the use of cars for transport to ‘last resort’, placing greater value in other ways of getting around. Walking to our destinations if they are close by, taking a bit of extra time and cycling or using a bus or train all have benefited our local environment. The reduction in car journeys had a massive effect on reducing invisible airborne pollution that, as an example, is linked to one in every 24 early deaths in Belfast. Like our green spaces, our public transport network continued throughout the lockdown responding to the crisis by making their stations, bus and train services as safe as possible with a range of measures and travel advice to protect everyone. Part of our reset has to be to invest more in these essential services.

While the pandemic has provided us with some ways to look forward, it has in some respects seen us take steps backward. Everyone wants to protect themselves and others. I welcome that and believe we must do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID 19. However, we have seen a rise in single use plastics as people rely on disposable protective equipment such as face masks and gloves. Over the past few years, we had begun to make significant progress in tackling our plastic problem and now is definitely not the time to go back to our old ways: Now is the time to think differently. Innovations around reusable PPE are happening and scientists have reported on the safety of using reusable cups and (appropriately triple-layered layered) face masks. The key seems to be the simple act of washing them properly after each use.

We also have noted a rise in complaints about littering. Sadly, for some in our community, they are not simply using bins provided or taking their rubbish home. Leaving your waste for a key worker to clean up is simply irresponsible and, in the case of PPE, is unnecessarily putting others at risk. Even if it doesn’t hurt a person right there and then, it heads off into the environment, killing and maiming our wildlife and costing millions to clean up. For a reset on our environment, we need to focus on changing behaviours and tackling the mindset of those who see no problem in not picking up after themselves. There remains much work to be done, but we cannot take our foot off the peddle if want to achieve the very real financial, personal health and environmental benefits – surely a cause worth fighting for.

As we rebuild from COVID-19, you will hear policy makers using the phrase “build back better.” I fundamentally agree in the need for better. That better has to start with protecting and enhancing our environment. The parks that were our constant place of escape during a lockdown, the beaches that allowed us to clear our heads and the scenery that will support not just our local population but also encourage others to visit us, when it is safe to do so all must be better valued. The one thing I am sure of is that we cannot build back better if we don’t put our environment at the heart of it.

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.

Photo by Min An is licensed under CC0