Coronavirus Is Threatening the Zero Waste Movement

Public Domain. Unsplash/ Ryan Everton

Businesses are saying no to shoppers who want to use their own cups and containers.

Coronavirus has become a major inconvenience for many industries, but one movement that's set to suffer greatly is zero waste. Just as people were starting to get the message to bring their own cups and containers to coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores, businesses are now changing their policies and banning personal containers in hopes of minimizing the risk of cross-contamination.

Starbucks and Canadian coffee chain Second Cup have both issued statements saying that they're temporarily suspending their reusable cup programs, as these could potentially spread germs. Starbucks' executive vice-president Rossann Williams said in an open letter last week,

"We are pausing the use of personal cups and 'for here' ware in our stores. We will continue to honor the 10-cent discount for anyone who brings in a personal cup or asks for 'for here' ware."

Second Cup stopped using personal cups on March 5, but said it too will honor the 20-cent discount people get if they bring in a cup (presumably just to show?) or opt to have their coffee poured into a store-owned ceramic mug. The Toronto Sun reports that these mugs are "washed in high-pressure sanitizers" and staff have been reminded to "monitor the machine’s temperature and wash their hands prior to unloading dishes." (Starbucks will not offer an in-house reusable cup.)

Bulk Barn, another Canadian chain that received praise for introducing a country-wide reusable container program in 2017, has said it is going back to single-use plastic bags for the time being. Spokesperson Shannon Gutcher said, "Out of an abundance of caution due to COVID-19 uncertainties, we have determined that it is appropriate at this point to be extra vigilant and to pause this program for the current time."

bulk barn zero waste haul

© K Martinko -- I take great pride in shopping with reusable glass jars at Bulk Barn.

Is it too much?

While some readers might consider these moves an overreaction, there is some sense in them, particularly the coffee cups. It doesn't seem like a great time to be passing people's saliva-tainted containers from hand to hand. But when it comes to stores like Bulk Barn, I'd be more concerned about all the food bins at perfect kid height, where anyone can breathe, sneeze, or cough into them, and the scoops used to transfer food, regardless of the container or bag that's being filled. Indeed, zero waste expert Anne-Marie Bonneau points out that contamination can come from anywhere:

"Personally, I’m no more concerned about coronavirus lurking in the bulk bins than anywhere else in the grocery store. Think of all the people who have handled the frozen pizzas or cereal boxes or anything else on the shelves for that matter. I’ll wash my hands well after I return home with my goods and I’ll continue to avoid touching my face."

What I do think this crisis indicates, however, is the need for coffee shops to have better in-house reusable cup programs, so that they are not dependent on customers to bring their own in order to reduce waste and have the necessary tools to sanitize appropriately. There are several excellent examples of companies already doing this, such as Vessel Works, which leases out insulated stainless steel mugs to coffee shops and collects and cleans them, and the city of Freiburg, Germany, which circulates standardized reusable cups throughout the city that each coffee shop is responsible for cleaning. Any non-fast food restaurant knows this is possible, as they clean dinner plates and cutlery daily without needing to switch to paper plates and disposable cutlery in a time of impending crisis.

In the meantime, we don't know what the future holds, and all of this might blow over quickly (or not), but I suspect Bonneau is right when she says people will likely avoid coffee shops as a precautionary measure, staying home and brewing their own cups of coffee and tea, while saving money at the same time.

"Many low-wasters who ordinarily take their reusable mugs to Starbucks will no doubt avoid the chain altogether, as will millions of other consumers during the outbreak. As a result, even while temporarily banning reusables, Starbucks may actually generate less trash during the outbreak because people will avoid eating and drinking out."

If you're nervous, go talk to your local bulk food or zero waste store to get their take on things. Not everyone is concerned. The Toronto Sun quotes Dayna Stein, owner of bare market, who says, "We sterilize scoops and bins between each use [and] we also ask customers to use funnel while pouring any dry goods, so it prevents our scoops from touching their containers."

There are ways to minimize waste while shopping without necessarily being zero waste, and I'll cover some of those in upcoming days. Stay tuned.