The fear of the deadly virus coupled with a lack of understanding and knowledge has meant that the movement for reusables and plastic-free options have taken a hit. As people look to create control over the unknown, there is growing uncertainty whether bringing your own cup or container is safe anymore. There’s also a lot of misinformation and panic around what people should buy to stay safe and healthy.
To help alleviate these tensions, we’ve put together some information on how we can minimise risk and waste during this COVID-19 pandemic. We believe there’s still a sustainable path forward that doesn’t undo all the zero waste and plastic reduction efforts that have made significant progress over the past few years.
Reusables vs. disposables
Whilst on lockdown we all have to start making lattes and cappuccinos for ourselves and see how much money we can save each week without the cafe coffee fix. But what happens when we re-emerge? Many coffee shop chains have banned reusables and “take-out only” food establishments have once again fueled the use of disposable containers. Will things go back to the way they once were? Or will this be a huge setback for the zero waste and plastic reduction movement?
Health and safety concerns are the main reason for this push back on reusable and refillable containers. The fear of cross contamination at grocery store bulk bins, restaurants and cafes is what spurred the changes. But instead of banning reusables altogether, the focus should be on developing new and adaptive initiatives, such as reusable cup systems where customers loan the cup and return it to a drop off point so the cups can be properly washed. When washed at high temperatures in a commercial dishwasher, cups and containers are effectively sanitised. Businesses that have spear-headed reusable cup systems (pre-COVID-19) include: CupClub, Shrewsbury Cup, and NextGenCup Consortium.
But unfortunately, the plastics industry is using COVID-19 as an excuse to push for restrictions on plastic bag taxes and slow down the progress of single-use plastic bans. They’re also encouraging the use of single-use items to prevent the spread of the virus. Although it has only been a few months since the pandemic hit, the industry is claiming the potential of viruses to live on reusables. But not enough research has been conducted thus far. The initial lab results of surfaces where COVID-19 and SARS live in hospitals has shown that the virus stays on plastics and steel for 72 hours, cardboard for 24 hours, and copper for 4 hours.
Because of these uncertain times, we’re left with a looming question: How will health and safety concerns play out for reusable and refillable containers? The answer is still unclear. But for now we can all do our part by continuing to advocate for low-waste living as we wait for more research to emerge.
What to clean with to minimise health risks
There is nothing wrong with a bar of soap.
The simple combination of soap and water remains one of the strongest weapons against infectious diseases, including the novel coronavirus. We don’t need to buy bottles of soap in plastic or stock up on multiple bottles cleaning products. Using bleach as a cleaner also isn’t necessary, as it can be corrosive to materials like metal and work surfaces. A solution of soap and water will be effective in cleaning and sanitising surfaces in your home. To learn more, check out National Geographic’s article about soap and bleach.
Avoid chemical cleaners
An increase in obsessive cleaning could lead to more toxic products going down the drain and into waterways. If you take a moment to read the labels on cleaning products, you might see a picture of a burning fish. This indicates that the product contains toxic chemicals that are harmful for wildlife. These products can also be harmful for humans. For example, inhaling too much bleach can cause a sore throat and other respiratory issues. Again, soap and water is recommended as the best cleaner thus far.
A word of advice about sanitisers
As alcohol gels and sanitisers quickly disappear from store shelves, there has been a surge of zero waste goddesses sharing recipes on their blogs and Instagram. But many of these recipes should be followed with caution. For any sanitiser to be effective, they need to contain alcohol that’s at least 70%. So when making your own at home, the type of alcohol you use and the amount of aloe vera gel is important to consider. 40% vodka will not do the trick. But it’s also worth noting that alcohol doesn’t necessarily kill viruses, especially if your hands are greasy. The best cleaning method is still hand washing.
Even though the future of reusables is uncertain, we shouldn’t give up hope. The movement for low-waste living and plastic reduction has taken hold in places across the globe, and there are innovations afoot to adapt to these changing times. By staying informed and rising above the panic, we can still keep sustainability top of mind in our everyday lives, while staying safe and healthy at the same time.
Blog credit to Roleen Seville.