Use of single-use plastic has surged during the pandemic amid uncertainty in the safety of reusable containers. We have seen countries banning reusable bags at grocery stores, coffee shops refusing to accept reusable cups, and grocers closing down their bulk sections for fear of cross-contamination and the spread of the coronavirus.
But are single-use containers safer than reusables?
Over 115 health experts from 18 countries say no. In a joint statement released on 22 June 2020, they reassure the public that reusables are safe to use1 especially by simply practicing basic hygiene.
Single-Use Plastics Are No Safer than Reusables
“At this time there is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19,” said the COVID-19 safety advisory committee at the North Carolina State University2.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus spreads mainly from person-to-person3 . People can get infected by inhaling respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. The CDC says that transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented.” But it reminds the public to keep all surfaces clean all the time.
Studies show that the virus can stay viable on hard surfaces for days4. It has been found that the virus can stay active the longest on non-disinfected plastic surfaces, where it can stay for up to six days. This is as long as when it’s on stainless steel but much longer than when on paper, cardboard, glass.
This shows that single-use plastic is no safer than reusables. Single-use plastic could even be more contaminated when it has been left exposed before use compared to frequently cleaned and disinfected reusables.
What is more important is practicing frequent cleaning followed by thorough disinfection of high-touch surfaces. Scientists and public health experts say that household disinfectants are effective at getting rid of the virus5.
Single-Use Plastics Are Worse in the Long Run
“Promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils,” said Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center.
Even before the pandemic, 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic were estimated to have ended up as waste ever since plastic production began in the 1950s6. Almost 80% of it is in landfills or in natural environments. Sadly, much of it has ended up in the oceans with an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year.
Discouraging the use of reusables during the pandemic worsens this problem. Pete Shmigel, CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR), said that an unprecedented amount of soft plastics have contaminated the curbside recycling bin since the pandemic has started7. “[This] spoils our good recycling efforts as a country,” he added.
The widespread use of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) has also concerned environmentalists and conservationists. It has been estimated that for every month of the COVID-19 pandemic, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves will have been disposed8.
This new plastic pollution concern surfaced when masks, gloves, and bottles of hand sanitiser started showing up on beaches and in the oceans across the globe. Masks and and gloves have been seen lying around empty shopping trolleys and grocer car parks, posing further health hazards over and above the pollution issues. Environmental groups encourage people to use reusable masks and to practice frequent handwashing instead.
How to Safely Use Reusables during the Pandemic
All these tell us that using reusable containers is a viable option during the pandemic. It not only keeps us safe from the coronavirus but also protects the environment from further damage. The key, according to experts, is to use basic hygiene.
The following should be observed for proper hygiene:
• Wash reusables thoroughly after each use
• Use bleach or alcohol based household disinfectants on surfaces to eliminate contaminants
• Dry reusables completely before storing them in a cool, dry place to discourage microbial growth
Hayley Clarke, sustainability advocate and managing director of Onya, urges everyone to bring their own reusable and washable bags when going outside.
While doing so, and especially if your local government advises, be sure to wear your reusable masks. Keep a safe distance from other people and keep your hands away from your face. This also means frequent handwashing with soap and water or regular disinfecting with alcohol-based sanitisers.
“We have to remember that every surface is potentially contaminated. And, like with any surface, there is a risk9,” explained Timothy Newsome, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney who specializes in virus disease and virology.
At the Grocer
Offer to pack your own items, even when you’re not at a self-checkout. When you get home, wash and dry your produce and grocery items and your reusable shopping bags before storing them. Disinfect areas, such as counter tops and sinks, that come in contact with the reusable bags and items brought from outside.
At the Restaurant
Ask if they accept reusable containers when getting takeaway and don’t forget to refuse straws, disposable napkins and cutlery too. When dining in, check if the restaurant has ample ventilation and spacing as well as if it is complying with the latest COVID safety guidelines and plans. In Western Australia, for example, restaurants are required to follow the two-square-meter and physical-distancing rules. Don’t forget to bring your own reusable containers for any leftovers to help reduce food waste.
f you don’t already, consider bringing your own lunch and drinks. Wrap your sandwich in a reusable lunch wrap and put your drinks in a reusable bottle. If you must get your caffeine fix, bring along your reusable coffee cup and get your to-go coffee at cafes that do Contactless Coffee.
Show Your Support And Consideration For Others
Hayley adds that aside from bringing their own reusable bags, everyone should consider shopping local and supporting small businesses during these times.
“It’s never been more important than it is now to be supporting your local bakeries and green grocers. Not only is the produce generally fresher having not sat through hours of transit and cold storage, but it’s also likely to have been touched by far fewer hands than the produce at the bigger supermarket chains.
“By bringing our own product bags, bread bags, or even bulk food bags, we are controlling the surfaces that our food touches. In these uncertain times, feeling even the tiniest bit in control is so important.” Your local stores along with their employees and fellow customers (and the planet) will thank you for continuing to think reusable and giving consideration to the safety of those around you during these times of heightened concerns.