Scientists Say Reusables Are Safe to Use During COVID-19

Your reusable bags and coffee mug are fine, as long as you keep them clean.

Grocery shopping with reusable bags
Shopping for groceries with reusable bags is an excellent way to reduce plastic waste.

@Anikona_ via Twenty20


With the spread of COVID-19, many stores have changed their policies to say that reusable containers and bags are no longer allowed. This has been frustrating for many eco-minded shoppers, including myself, who strive to minimize plastic packaging and even bring our own containers to avoid using packaging at all. It's also been demoralizing after all the hard work by anti-plastic campaigners to reduce single-use plastics and convince the public that reusables are fine. It's as if we've taken one step forward and 10 steps back.

But now there is some hopeful news on the horizon. A global group of scientists has signed and published a statement that addresses the safety of reusables during COVID-19, and their conclusion is loud and clear: Reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene​.

While it's believed that the coronavirus is capable of spreading by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then transferring to one's face with contaminated hands, the scientists' statement says that "aerosolized droplets are the only documented method of COVID-19 transmission to date" – the Centers for Disease Control says the same.

The statement points out that disposable products present the same problems as reusables when it comes to providing a surface for the virus to live on. One should assume that any surface can be contaminated with the virus, and not become complacent just because an item is designated as single-use. 

"One study showed infectious virus lasted up to 24 hours on paper and cardboard and between 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. ​In another study, infectious virus was not found on print or tissue paper after just three hours, whereas it was active up to 1 day on cloth, up to 3 days on glass, and 6 days on plastic and stainless steel."

With this in mind, reusables have an advantage because they can be cleaned. Soap and hot water remain the strongest defence against the coronavirus, both on one's hands and with one's grocery shopping bags and containers; so if you're putting bags in the washing machine and containers in the dishwasher, you're likely further ahead than if you're just grabbing plastic grocery bags from a stack offered at the checkout (that everyone else has breathed on).

The scientists conclude their statement with several recommendations for best practices: (1) practice proper hygiene; (2) comply with food safety codes that already require additional sanitizing procedures and "provide more than adequate protection against virus transmission"; (3) establish contact-free systems for customers, so that employees don't even need to touch their reusables; (4) provide personal protective equipment to employees and maintain social distancing in stores.

This statement comes at a crucial time, when doubts that have been seeded in people's minds about the viability of reusables have been fanned into large fires. With the European Union on track to ban many single-use plastics by 2021, the plastics industry is eager for any excuse to delay and create doubt about such bans, and the pandemic has given it an easy excuse. 

For example, earlier this year the Plastics Industry Association asked the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to "make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics [and to] speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk." Fortunately we can now rest assured that they are not a public safety risk, according to more than 100 scientists worldwide – and these are the people to whom we should be listening, not industry lobbyists.

Charlotte Williams, a chemistry professor at Oxford University who signed the statement, told the Guardian, "I hope we can come out of the COVID-19 crisis more determined than ever to solve the pernicious problems associated with plastics in the environment. In terms of the general public’s response to the COVID crisis, we should make every attempt to avoid over-consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in applications like packaging.” 

Indeed, marine activists in France have already noticed an uptick in the amount of "COVID waste" found on the beaches and coastal waters – masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other detritus of the pandemic. This is only going to get worse if people continue to prioritize single-use packaging over reusables.

I suspect it will take a while for most businesses to go back to allowing reusables, but already I'm seeing a shift; the No Frills supermarket where I shop has adjusted its policy and now allows reusables once again. The more people who understand it's not risky, the sooner we can gain back some of the ground we lost in recent months, and this statement will surely help.