Plastic pollution, reuse and COVID-19

Dear friends,

‍Firstly, we hope you are keeping safe and doing OK. We know that, like us, you may be stuck at home, worried about friends and loved ones, or your health, or your job and finances, or about having enough food and toilet paper.

As many of us are without childcare, or homeschooling children and feeling isolated from community, the next few months and possibly even longer will be really hard for everyone, everywhere.

But we’re all in this together. So, while we adjust to new routines, let’s stay calm and stick together in the best ways we can – by keeping safe and following these recommendations from the World Health Organization, washing our hands and sharing information.

1. Are reusables safe?

Yes. When it comes to reusable bottles, cups, plates and containers, thoroughly washing your reusables on a regular basis using plain old soap or washing up liquid and hot water will do the trick. This is an effective way to actually dissolve and kill the coronavirus, other viruses and bacteria.

Home and commercial dishwashers are even more effective than hand-washing because of the added benefit of high temperature and prolonged washing. As Dr. Vineet Menachery, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch recently said, “I wouldn’t expect any virus to survive a dishwasher.”

As for shopping bags, it’s unlikely to get COVID-19 from your own reusable cloth bags, because “if the surfaces absorb, it’s harder to transmit the virus.” And again, regular washing with detergent and water will destroy the coronavirus.

2. Are single-use disposables safer?

No. When compared to your own properly washed reusables, disposables can harbour coronavirus, other viruses and bacteria all along the supply chain. From production, transport and shelf stocking to eventual use – they are subject to hygienic uncertainty.

Although many people tend to think of plastic packaging as being sanitary – no disposable packaging is sterile – not even close. And as Béa Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home, recently said, “With disposables, you have no idea who has touched it. With your own reusables, you do!”

In addition, it’s important to remember that using more single-use plastic disposables during this or any other time increases your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals that are toxic. According to a recently-released scientific consensus statement, over 12,000 chemicals are used in food packaging, and many of them are hazardous to human health. Migration of these toxic chemicals from plastic disposables into our food and drink is not an issue with non-plastic reusables.

3. Can I use my reusable water bottle or coffee cup?

Yes. Coronavirus mainly spreads through coughs and sneezes, not your reusable water bottle or cup. Especially when you refill from home.

If you have to go out, refill from home before you go or use a hands-free water refill station if you have to. If you don’t have easy access to one of these, just don’t let your water bottle directly touch the spigot, and be mindful about washing your hands after touching any communal surfaces. The same logic applies to your reusable cup.

And, don’t forget to wash your bottle or cup with soap and water again, preferably in a dishwasher.

4. As the war on plastic is being put on hold as the battle to contain coronavirus ramps up. Will this continue, and what does this mean?

As the coronavirus spreads, personal drinking bottles and cups and reusable bags are being shunned, sales of throwaway bottled water, bags, masks, gloves and antiseptic wipes – made from plastic – are soaring and demand is outstripping supply. In an effort to protect front-line workers confronting shortages, hospitals and research groups are racing to roll out new ways to reuse face masks safely. Meanwhile, the trash industry braces themselves for the potential deluge of coronavirus waste while grappling from concerns about workers’ exposure to the pathogen.

At the same time, sales of frozen food and packaging have surged and as restaurants are scrambling to reinvent themselves in the wake of coronavirus to survive, delivery brands (such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo) are seizing the opportunity to embed themselves in our lives by making a throwaway home delivery culture a universal habit. Whilst it might be convenient or even essential right now, it will ultimately be a damaging one.

To make matters worse, plastic bag charges are being waived, some recycling programs are being suspended and government plans to further reduce single-use plastic are being reviewed or put on hold due to the pandemic.

Because of this, there is likely to be an explosion of single-use products and packaging for some time, and the long-term impact of these reactive measures on plastic pollution and our long-term health will undoubtedly be significant.

As a result, our global approach to addressing the catastrophic plastics crisis will continue to contribute to climate change, threaten all life, contaminate precious water systems, pass up the food chain, affect human health, infiltrate other cultures and encourage a throwaway consumer culture at an unprecedented rate.

What the coronavirus crisis is showing us is that the separation of health and environmental policy is a ​dangerous delusion. Nature is sending us a message, and this time, we cannot afford go back to business as usual.

5. Will coronavirus kill our growing reusable and zero waste lifestyle?

No. As the need for safe reuse and refill delivery systems has never been greater, imagine a future with reusable food delivery systems in place like Green Tiffin and Planted Table in San Francisco, and Superfine Tiffins in New York City. And, imagine how much less waste would be generated if systems like these were already in place everywhere.  

Just as local dairies are bringing back the reusable milk bottle, we believe businesses like these will gain traction, and continue to create new systems for bulk purchasing on deposit. Especially because doing so can help them save money.

While the coronavirus will change many things in our lives, COVID-19 might just be the push we need to expand and formalize ‘zero waste’ circular economy systems, that work in harmony with nature.

So, we will remain unswerving in our work to help create a world free from pointless plastic and pollution for clean oceans and thriving ecosystems to support generations of abundant life to come.

As we all navigate these difficult times, ‍we hope you find these thoughts useful as we will continue to help provide helpful insights over the coming months.

Most importantly, take care of yourself, stay safe and hold your loved ones close.

**Please note that in these rapidly changing times research is moving quickly – all information was up to date at the time of publication.