Earth Day moves indoors: Celebrations adapt to online format amid COVID-19 outbreak

Amid social distancing, Earth Day celebrations on the UI campus have made significant changes to original plans. However, online-focused initiatives and plans hope to spread information on sustainability and continue the celebration.


Ryan Adams

Photo Illustration by Ryan Adams

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

Faculty, staff, and students are brainstorming new ways to celebrate the planet on Earth Day as they social distance indoors because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and the Environment Director Stratis Giannakouros said his department has self-selected international webinars focused on sustainability to celebrate Earth Day this year. In light of COVID-19, Giannakouros said creating self-branded content would be difficult and time consuming for staff and faculty already adjusting to online learning.

Although he said that he and his colleagues are disappointed that original plans for the 50th celebration of Earth Day have been canceled, the seriousness of coronavirus and honoring essential workers in the UI community is far more important.

“I think that everything that I feel right now and everything we feel pales in comparison to the human tragedy of COVID-19,” Giannakouros said.

The effect of COVID-19 mitigation efforts on the environment aren’t yet clear, especially as many countries remain under limited-travel orders. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, global CO2 emissions could fall as much as 5.5 percent compared to 2019.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Undergraduate Program and Outreach Coordinator Caroline Garske said the sustainability office also has online materials with tips to stay environmentally friendly online and sustainable at home, and a Story Map which explores the first Earth Day on the UI campus with archival documents from the DI.

Garske said the office is making the most of the situation and planning for the future.

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“While we are saddened that we cannot celebrate the 50th Earth Day in-person, our department will be both reflecting on the fifty-year legacy and accomplishments of Earth Day and planning for future challenges and successes ahead in sustainability,” Garske said.

The UI Environmental Coalition has been celebrating the Earth throughout the month of April, not just on Earth Day, said the organization’s Co-President Emily Manders.

Although the coalition had to cancel different events over the course of the month as a result of COVID-19, she said it planned online challenges to honor the holiday.

The coalition began creating daily challenges to complete throughout Earth week Monday, Manders said, including tasks such as eating a plant-based diet for a day, “greening your travel” by opting to walk or bike to different destinations, reducing to a “zero-waste” lifestyle for a day, and learning about waste-related information including recycling and composting.

Manders said those partaking in the challenges were asked to tag the coalition on social media to spread awareness.

“It’s a very good day for reflection that, you know, we can just take a moment in our busy days and really think about the earth and our impact,” she said.

The environmental coalition’s original plans for Earth Month included a reusable bag exchange, a “Move Out Treasure Trade” pop-up thrift sale during students’ residence hall and apartment move out, and a benefit concert to raise awareness and money for the UI Gardeners club, Manders said.

These events may be rescheduled for the fall 2020 semester, depending on whether or not social distancing is required and if the UI returns to in-person teaching, she said. UI President Bruce Harreld sent an email to the university community on April 17 emphasizing that the UI was planning to resume in-person instruction in the fall.

While the changes to its Earth Month events are disappointing, the coalition acknowledges the seriousness of the novel coronavirus and the need to cancel plans, Manders said.

“Everyone in the organization is pretty upset about this, but we realized that there is a bigger cause that we have to think about … and just realizing you’re impacting the environment as well as being safe,” Manders said.

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