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Helen Oakey, Executive Director

As the ACT eases restrictions and life begins to take on some semblance of “normality” after the COVID lockdown, we are all scrambling to resume our lives as they once were. Yet as we throw ourselves into the daily grind, the commute to work, the organised sports, and family events, there are perhaps some things from the last few months that we can take forward into our new lives (besides a whole new appreciation of hygiene!).

Many people have reported that there were things about lockdown that they enjoyed, in spite of the challenges. It gave them an opportunity to connect with their families in a different way, and to connect with nature and the outdoors in a different way. People enjoyed being in their gardens, on their bikes, or walking in nature reserves, during what was a perfect autumn here in Canberra. Without the flurry of social and sporting activities putting that extra pressure on our lives, there was time to do things that improved their relationships with each other and renewed their relationship with nature and the outdoors. 

As the world slowed down, we saw benefits for the environment. Global emissions dropped as planes stopped flying, and skies were clear for the first time in decades in some places. Streets around the world and here at home were clear of cars as people worked from home, and in Canberra people took to their bicycles for exercise and recreation in unheard of numbers, clearing out stocks at local bike shops. People-only streets have been established in some cities, something the ACT could consider. 

Gardening projects were rolling out across the city in the gorgeous autumn days of lockdown, and garden supplies and vegetable seedlings were also in hot demand. While we often aspire to growing our own food, it seems that the mantra “I never have time” holds true. As people found time at home each day they invested in their gardens; for many people it was the first time they had done so. 

At our house, we noticed that we wasted less food. Australian households throw away, on average, about a fifth of the food they buy. Rather than the leftovers being missed in the back of the fridge because we had unexpected weekday evenings out or succumbed to the emergency takeaway, we systematically made our way through the leftovers for lunches and dinners, before they started to go bad or grow green mould. Again, spending more time at home gave us more time to use our resources wisely.

On the downside, not having the option to “eat in” at restaurants meant that takeaway foods were delivered in plastic bags and containers. Concern about transmitting the virus also meant that cafes and takeaway outlets moved away from reusable coffee cups, something that continues at many cafe outlets. Luckily here in the ACT we know that coffee cups, when put in the recycling, are able to be processed. But the community was on the cusp of a big cultural shift with regards to using single-use plastics, and the pandemic has somewhat slowed the momentum on this, despite the fact that health advice is that reusable containers were no riskier than disposable ones.

So what message can we take about the past few months, and what it means for our lives going forward, particularly in regards to our relationship with the environment and living sustainably?

When I reflected on this, it seemed that the key issue here was time. 

Time is the magic ingredient that allows us the opportunity to live in a more sustainable way – more time to grow vegetables in our gardens, to walk in our nature reserves, to cycle to the shops rather than drive the car, to cook good food for family and friends, and to pick up our grocery bags or reusable coffee cup as we head out the door, rather than thinking there is somewhere we had to be yesterday as we leave the house in a flurried panic. 

Perhaps what we learn from being at home for more time than ever before is time is the thing we were short of in our lives pre-COVID. How we might respond to this would be different for everyone. Some may consider a 4-day working week, or working from home so as to spending time with children after school, or giving up one or two commitments during the week. 

But one thing is clear to me: as we go forward, putting aside just a little more time to live in a more sustainable way might be the legacy of this extraordinary year.