Coronavirus lockdown's environmental benefits may be offset by axing recycling

One upside to COVID-19 lockdowns around the world is a cleaner environment.

With fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky, the environmental benefits of COVID-19 lockdowns are showing.

In Venice, the canals are clearer, in China the city smog is lifting.

"It's really amazing how quickly some of these eco-systems have changed with the reduction on the human impact on the environment," says Professor James Renwick, a climate scientist.

NIWA scientists have found a huge improvement in Auckland's air quality - but Prof Renwick is concerned our behaviour won't last beyond the lockdown.

"What worries me is that we go back to business as usual and in fact we go back to more."

There are also concerns we're offsetting benefits by axing some recycling services - especially at a time when we're using more and more single-use products.

"It will pile up, there will be nowhere to put it and the easy option is to put it into waste and we really hope that doesn't happen," says Georgie Ferrari, Sustainability Trust chief executive.

Ferrari's stockpiling her recycling, but worries others won't and will continue sending it to the landfill even after the lockdown lifts. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment says while recycling is an essential service, operations must minimise risk. So if a council can't do it safely, it can choose not to operate.

That's led to confusion, with some councils, including Auckland, still collecting most recycling. Others, like Wellington, have pulled the service.

"In Wellington we have lots of manual handling so the people who touch it are at risk," says Wellington City Council head of waste Mike Mendonca. 

For now, the message is to make the most of an opportunity to do things a little greener.

Many can start by saving up recycling for when services resume.