COVID-19, the environment, and the tech ecosystem: what opportunity is available out there for us?

Entering 2021, despite challenges here and there, the world finds itself making an attempt to rise from the impact of COVID-19.

Industries that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic began to launch initiatives to recover. Take the example of the tourism industry in Singapore, which is working closely with tech startups to provide a safe travel experience for tourists. Or, closely related to the tourism industry is the MICE industry, that have conducted major events such as the World Economic Forum and RISE in Southeast Asia.

The questions that remain are mostly related to the environmental impact of the virus attack, and whether we are ready to recover from it.

In the early days of the arrival of COVID-19, there were reports about air and sound pollution decreasing in many places around the world. This is strongly related to the lockdown measures as implemented in many countries.

However, as lockdown measures starting to ease in countries that have been hit by the pandemic earlier, things are coming back to square one.

In June, National Geographic stated in its headline that COVID-19 will end up harming the environment. It detailed in its report that in countries such as China, pollution level has already started to return to pre-pandemic times as “factories pushed to make up for the lost time.”

The report also predicts “bolder” lobbying moves from businesses that have been known to be massive polluter such as coal.

Also Read: Making cross-border partnerships work within a COVID-19 reality

Where the focus should be

What has been done to tackle this issue? The answer might vary depending on which market you are focussing on.

The Platform Redesign 2020, an initiative that builds upon the 11th Petersberg Climate Dialogue and the UNFCCC’s June Momentum for Climate Change, showcases the range of policies that governments are doing to tackle the environmental impact of COVID-19. This includes initiatives from governments in Southeast Asian (SEA) countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

But on the ground, there is often a gap between the policy that has been proposed and its implementation.

In an interview with e27, Tiza Mafira, Executive Director at Gerakan Indonesia Diet Kantong Plastik (IDDKP), explains the rising environmental problems that are directly related to the pandemic. It includes the illegal dumping of medical waste from hospitals, which triggered by the sheer size of medical waste produced during the time.

There is also an uptick in plastic waste that is the result of increasing food delivery and online shopping activities.

“There is a perception [among F&B businesses] that the pandemic is an unusual time and they could get away with increasing use of plastic utensils for sanitary reasons. There is also a push from the plastic industry that plastics are the best to safeguard your safety and health; it succeeded in scaring people off, developing this paranoia,” she says.

Even when major food delivery platforms such as GrabFood or Go-Food have been providing options for users to opt-out of plastic cutleries, or to pay for their use, there is no enough awareness from merchants to actually use the feature.

“They could have just applied it universally,” Mafira stresses, calling out other e-commerce platforms to provide an option for plastic-free delivery packagings.

What the ecosystem can do

In tackling this issue, the private sector -as represented by the tech startup ecosystem- has an important role to play.

Also Read: Alienated-from-home: How to enhance corporate belonging in a post-COVID-19 world

In Indonesia, Mafira mentions that there are already startups building solutions to improve waste management. “In Jakarta alone, there are about five or six companies working in private waste management or collection. Some of them are using apps, technologically advanced, user-friendly methods.”

Academicians such as Tanjena Rume and S.M. Didar-Ul Islam of Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, have even proposed steps that can be taken in order to curb the environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They included: Sustainable industrialisation, use of green and public transport, use of renewable energy, wastewater treatment and reuse, waste recycling and reuse, ecological restoration and eco-tourism, behavioural changes in daily life, and international cooperation.

From this list alone, we can see that the opportunity for tech startups to contribute is vast enough already. It provides rooms for startups in various verticals to innovate, from SaaS platforms to electric vehicles to waste management to even travel tech platforms.

And how can they make this contribution sustainable?

It has been said many times that the key to a startup’s success is finding that product-market fit. As elaborated in the popular business methodology Lean Startup, many startups fail simply because they never reach out to customers to find out if the solutions are really what the users need.

In the context of working to solve environmental challenges, startups can always work together with different parties to help them get a deeper understanding of the problem, the gap between policy and implementation, and a more holistic view of the existing opportunities.

The need for collaboration has become more urgent as vaccines become more widely available and safety measures are bein eased up in many countries -as the world is slowly returning to normal.

We are rushing with time to make sure that a solution is readily available when needed.

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Image Credit: Cate Bligh on Unsplash

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