As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run its course, human and environmental health are at risk. An alarming resurgence of single-use plastics threatens our climate and hard-won progress towards reducing our reliance on single-use plastic disposables. In recent years, we have celebrated enormous wins, including homegrown campaigns across the nation focused on the fight against plastic pollution, commitments from big corporations, and global and local policy changes—such as the Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance. These big wins make the impacts of the coronavirus crisis hit even harder.
It is evident that the Plastics Industry has recognized an opportunity to exploit the crisis by encouraging the rollback of existing efforts to reduce single-use plastics and eliciting fear and uncertainty around the safety of reusables. As some plastic bag bans have temporarily been suspended, reusable bags and cups prohibited, and new requirements have emerged that seem to encourage single-use disposables—we can imagine our community may, rightfully so, be confused and have some concerns regarding the future of reusables. Can COVID-19 be transmitted through the use of reusable bags? Can the reuse movement make a comeback after this pandemic? Is it safer to use single-use plastics? What is the future of reusables?
Keep reading as we bust 5 myths regarding reusables during COVID-19.
Myth #1: Reusable bags have been found to be major vectors for the transmission of COVID-19.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person.” The virus that causes COVID-19 can be captured in respiratory droplets that can land in mouths or noses, or be inhaled by people who are nearby. While it may be possible to contract the virus by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your mouth or nose, “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented.” Aerosolized droplets are the only known method of COVID-19 transmission to date. We are still learning about how COVID-19 spreads, however reusable bags have not been found to be major vectors for transmission.
Myth #2: Reusables are Being Prohibited because They Are Unsafe.
The temporary ban of reusables has been implemented to limit direct contact between employees and customers, not because of any supported threat to human health. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, this temporary ban allows for increased physical distancing and helps to reduce exposure for workers who have regular close interaction with the public.
As some temporary bans are more restrictive than others, there may be other alternatives to using single-use plastic bags for shopping:
- If permitted, bag your own groceries, helping to limit contact points for store staff.
- Ask for items to be placed back into the cart. Keep reusable bags inside your vehicle and unload items directly from the cart, for easy transport into your household.
- If reusable bags are not an option, opt for paper bags instead. Reuse them as much as possible; then recycle or compost them at the end of their useful life.
Now, and beyond the times of COVID-19, regular cleaning, followed by disinfecting of reusables, is a best practice measure for the prevention of spreading pathogens.
Myth #3: Disposable Products are More Sanitary Than Reusables.
Reusable items like grocery bags, are safe and sustainable, and are no more likely to carry the virus than their disposable counterparts. While there is still a lot to learn about surface transmission of the novel coronavirus, some studies show that plastic has been found to be one of the materials on which the virus survives longest (up to 3 days).
Retail provided plastic disposables often are handled more frequently than their reusable counterparts, which must adhere to extensive cleaning and sanitizing food and safety regulations. Disposables are subject to whatever pathogens have settled on them from manufacturing, transporting, inventory stocking, and eventual use. In the CDC and FDA guidances, reusable products are not considered problematic or a cause for concern. Social distancing and hygiene are the primary protections for workers and consumers in retail food settings. No threats posed by reusables are mentioned.
Though there is little to no research-based evidence to support a cause for health concerns, it is important to note that cleaning and disinfecting best practice measures should always be followed as COVID-19 could be found and transported on many other objects (phone, wallet, purse, etc.) that have not been banned in public spaces.
Myth #4: Plastic disposables have always been the more sustainable option.
When evaluating the environmental impact of a reusable compared to a disposable, one must do a lifecycle analysis and figure out the break-even point. The analysis accounts for the impacts of the product throughout its entire life, including environmental impacts related to extraction, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and end-of-life management. Plastic may have a lower carbon footprint than stainless steel, for example, however, there are far greater risks to human and environmental health during the plastic production process, like the bioaccumulation of harsh chemicals (polyfluoroalkyls or “PFAs”) and carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemical additives for functionality.
In addition to the impacts on our health, we must also consider environmental threats. Plastic disposables and other single-use items are usually produced from non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, and are often immediately and improperly discarded and not reused. Studies estimate that there are anywhere between five and 50 trillion plastic particles in our oceans today. While a very small percentage of plastic is recycled, most of it remains in the environment, choking waterways, threatening wildlife, landfilled, or in micro pieces somewhere in the atmosphere. Though the break-even point varies amongst reusables, reuse remains far superior to single-use disposables of any kind.
Myth #5: The Reuse Movement Cannot Survive the Coronavirus.
While the exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic by the Plastics Industry is appalling, the fight is not lost! Great progress is still happening, plastic-bag ban suspensions are only temporary, and current setbacks are short term. To press forward, we must support reusable systems—demand reusable dine-in, takeout, and delivery options; and refuse plastic utensils whenever possible, and resume to bringing your reusables once suspensions lift.
If anything, this crisis has fueled a stronger fight, highlighting the need for reusable systems for dine-in, take-out, and food delivery. Pre-pandemic, our Vessel reusable cup pilot was doing really well, having just surpassed 1,000 users and 5,000 cups saved when the closures began. In a recent Ecology Center webinar discussion, co-founder Dagny Tucker, shared about recent developments in contactless delivery services, broadening the reach of reusables beyond beverages. Vessel and other reuse service programs still think this is the future and will be working to expand and replicate pilots as things normalize.
Don’t let mistruths halt the reuse movement! There are many other ways to not only Get Plastic Out of Your Life but to TAKE ACTION in continued efforts to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic disposables and address the plastic pollution crisis. Signatures are currently being collected to get a new initiative, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act of 2020 on the upcoming ballot. If enough signatures are gathered, it will appear on the November ballot.
While it may seem that the hard-fought efforts and advancements are lost, “We could be thinking about this as an opportunity for a healthy and safe and just future and creating recovery strategies and stimulus strategies that really advance our urgent environmental needs and social justice needs.”