Reusables Can Be Safe to Use During a Pandemic

A Greenpeace report argues that we need not shift to widespread disposable plastics.

bulk food containers
Gravity-fed bulk food bins.

@a_gubinskaya via Twenty20 

Reusable containers and plastic bag bans have fallen from favor in North America ever since the pandemic struck. When the coronavirus was still new and unknown, there was fear that it could spread from surface contamination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection cleared that up, stating that "transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented," but plastic-producing companies have continued to fan the flames of controversy by citing old, industry-backed studies that suggest otherwise.

Caught in the middle of the debate and unwilling to take risks with their health, many shoppers and retailers have backed away from reusables and embraced single-use plastics out of a sense of necessity. This is troubling because the last thing we need is more single-use plastic waste on this planet. Arguments can be made for the importance of plastic masks and face shields, but thin plastic produce bags? Not so much.

Environmental campaigner Greenpeace wants to change people's minds, educating them on how reusables can be perfectly safe to use, while improving the long-term environmental conditions of the world we inhabit. It has just published a lengthy report called "Reusables Are Doable" that offers real-life examples of companies using reusables in creative, sanitary ways. These companies are living proof that alternative models exist and that we should not settle for single-use plastics, just because some policy-makers say we should.

The report points out that many people already trust dentists and medical doctors to sanitize their reusable equipment safely and thoroughly, so why do we not extend that trust to food-service businesses, which already must comply with strict food-handling protocols? 

"That same trust is and must continue to be bestowed on companies and restaurants to sanitize reusables, and businesses and governments have a role in educating the public about the safety of reuse."

We know it's possible. In 2019 California created guidelines to allow diners to have their own containers filled by restaurants in a safe fashion. While restaurants can choose not to participate, it's meaningful that such guidelines exist; it shows that the government recognizes reusables to be safe, under the right conditions. 

The examples given in the Greenpeace report include the well-known Loop program and reusable takeout cup models, such as Vessel Works, the Freiburg Cup, Muuse, and CupClub. Many coffee shops have developed procedures for filling customers' cups safely, by implementing social distance and using a third container to fill the cup without the barista ever needing to touch it. 

Some restaurants are serving meals in their own reusable containers, which require a deposit and boost brand loyalty, particularly if there's a discount for returning the container. 

"San Francisco-based Dispatch Goods works with local businesses that provide their to-go meals in reusable containers. Customers pick up their meals in reusable stainless steel containers from the restaurant; when they are finished, they notify Dispatch Goods, which collects the containers from customers and washes them for the next use at a participating business."

From gravity-fed bulk food dispensers, to automated refill systems such as MIWA, to India's famous 130-year-old Dabbawala system that's being recreated by The Wally Shop in the U.S., the options for safely integrating reusables into our lives are endless.

The Greenpeace report says there is tremendous potential for growth in this sector, especially if buying meals in reusable containers means having to order them in advance: "Placing advanced orders with local restaurants helps provide business to operators who can plan for the number of meals to make and staff hours needed, given significant layoffs industry-wide."

It's a unique opportunity for all businesses, from young startups to established bigger companies, to get on board with a new way of doing things; and if they do not, they "risk becoming obsolete as others gain market share by providing services to customers without the need for disposable packaging." The fact is that, despite fears of coronavirus, people are still worried about single-use plastics, and if they can find a way to avoid them, they will likely choose that option over a more wasteful one. 

We really have no choice, because failing to implement reusable models will only end in more environmental destruction. Greenpeace, as usual, does not mince its words:

"If governments require or businesses turn to widespread disposables, the world will face more plastic pollution, increased forest destruction, and worsened climate change, and the exploitation and harm to communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction, petrochemical and plastic production, and plastics incineration and landfilling will continue."

The good news, though? These reusable models already exist. Nobody has to start from scratch. All we need is government assistance and funding to scale up as rapidly as possible, and widespread promotion and support. "This is a moment to join a growing movement for a plastic-free future and a reuse revolution." It could be the start of something radically new and amazing.