Reusing in the time of COVID-19

In the last few months, our lives have been turned upside-down. Countless have lost their lives or loved ones, millions are unemployed, and we have been forced to reevaluate many of the things we take for granted. 

One huge shift during the pandemic has been the impact on the environment.

For instance, thanks to a decrease in transportation and production, we’re experiencing decreased air pollution. On the other hand, many essential plastic-free swaps like reusable grocery and produce bags, mugs, and food containers have been banned over contamination concerns. Single-use masks and plastic gloves help essential workers stay safe, and stay-at-home orders have increased online shopping, which arrives at your door alongside disposable packaging; all of these have contributed to a noted increase in plastic pollution

gloves plastic waste

Above all, staying safe and protecting the lives of our loved ones and our community should be paramount.

But where does the protection of the environment come in, or vulnerable people who are harmed by the production and disposal of plastics? And is the ban on reusables or the promotion of disposables even the best way to decrease contamination?

Recently, a collection of over 115 health experts from around the world released a statement affirming that "reusable systems can be utilized safely by employing basic hygiene and creating contact-free options for customers’ personal bags and cups."  Basically, it’s not the use of reusable vs. disposable items that impacts the spread of germs, but how they’re handled. For instance, while dentist offices reuse tools over and over for different patients, we trust the system that dentists use to professionally clean and sanitize their equipment so there isn’t tremendous concern.

Many in the environmental community emphasize that unless they are specifically marked sterile, disposable and plastic items are not inherently safer than reusable items. Most materials carry germs for at least a couple hours after being exposed, and plastic or disposable packaging that has been handled by multiple people is just as likely to have been contaminated as reusable packaging of different materials.

Therefore, they emphasize that we should focus more on how packaging is being handled than what the packaging is and jumping to conclusions. 

Health experts are urging everyone to take special care to sanitize items that could potentially contaminated, including reusable cups and bags. Household cleaning agents are sufficient to clean and sanitize reusable items. 

The plastics industry is taking advantage of public fears to push against nationwide plastic bag bans. Certain lobbying groups supported by the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council (a group that represents several plastic manufacturers) have doubled down on their efforts to paint reusable items as inherently dangerous or “virus-laden” and to ban reusables. Demand for single-use items has grown and many states (even California) are lifting bans on plastic bags and banning reusable items.

Finally, experts have emphasized since long before COVID-19 how the creation, use, and disposal of plastic is also a significant public health concern. From the toxic chemical pollution during manufacturing, chemical leaching, pollution of water and food systems, and disposal systems that disproportionally create health problems in low-income communities of color, the portrayal of disposable plastics as inherently "safer" ignores the bigger picture of long-term ecological and societal health as well as the realities of COVID spread. 

So where do our cities stand right now?

As of June 23rd, in the city of Berkeley, “Customers are permitted to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home, but they must not place them on any surfaces.” In Alameda county, the rule is similar: “Customers are permitted to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home if they do not require handling by employees.” However, in San Francisco, reusable bags remain prohibited in retail spaces.  

How should we proceed? 

  • Recognize that the plastic industry’s portrayal of plastic and single-use as inherently safer isn’t necessarily true-- it’s about frequency and type of cleaning, as well as exposure. 
  • Be sure to follow the guidelines in your area. If you live somewhere like San Francisco, you can purchase produce loose without using a plastic produce bag (just be sure to wash it thoroughly once you get home!), and if you can, take your groceries outside in the cart and then bag them yourself in reusable bags outside. 
  • Wash your reusable items thoroughly and frequently, and encourage others to do the same. 
  • Shop with curbside pickup or in physical retail spaces instead of ordering to your house, or if you have to order online try your best to support small, local businesses instead of large, national corporations. 

Do you have any other updates, suggestions, or questions? Leave them in the comments! 

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