Well before the novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) heightened everyone’s sense of cleanliness and sterilization, we’ve heard and addressed much discussion about sanitation of reusables in the food service industry. Working with the USDA, FDA, Oregon Healthy Authority and County Health Departments, agencies that are pretty much always working on various sanitation issues, we’ve broached all kinds of important policies and practices to encourage reusables and durables while also ensuring the health of consumers and employees within the industry. In light of some recent questions about COVID-19 and a few signs popping up in stores about bagging your own reusable bags, we thought it was important to help provide some general thoughts on why we believe reusable are still a safe bet, and likely the only bet that you can actually control.

The single use items at left are subject to whatever bacteria and viruses settle on them while the reusable items at right can remain solely within your control and safely sterilized at with soap and water or your dishwasher.

First, the background. I got a call early this week about the bag policy in Oregon from some national lobbyists and the bill’s chief sponsor. National guidance was coming through the grocery industry amidst the COVID-19 concerns about best ways to protect their employees who are and will be much on the front lines of exposure. The guidance was to accept reusable bags but to request customers bag them themselves. My initial reaction was, “hey shouldn’t this be the case for any bag, we all touch the food and stuff that goes on that conveyer belt in the checkout line, exchange money, etc.? Seems we’re picking on the reusable bag, instead of all the vectors that could expose an employee (or customer).” Seriously, most single use plastics have allowable amounts of microbes that very between industries. Of course the last thing I wanted to do was sound insensitive or lack concern (if you haven’t noticed, tensions are high about how we should all feel about this), so I tempered my response and simply suggested it might be more equitable and safer for everyone if they considered guidance that all customers bag their own groceries for the time being. So if you see a sign in a store or you’re asked to bag your own groceries, now you know. Here’s what the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety program had to say about the unlikeliness of COVID transmission from reusable bags and general best practices for shopping.

Side note, as much of the food service industry is suffering and laying employees off, the food supply and grocery industry is suffering labor shortages and hiring by the thousands amidst the pandemic

As with reusable bags, the whole reusable lifestyle questions starting popping up amidst the early weeks of the pandemic in the US. Hearing some of the concerns was like replaying the same history that we’ve worked through when creating these practices and policies in the first place, but the sliver lining is it’s just another reason to help educate on the safety and sanitation of reusables. Whether or not we’re in the midst of a COVID-19 (or other super scary pandemic), health and safety is at the front of mind when creating reusable policies and considering design and process. What follows is a great FAQ developed from our coalition friends from UPSTREAM:

Are reusables safe?

  • Yes, the short answer is that soap and hot water are effective at killing coronavirus, other viruses and bacteria. Home and commercial dishwashers are more effective than handwashing because of the added benefit of high temperature and prolonged washing.
  • State health codes ensure that commercial dishwashing will kill all pathogens, and the coronavirus is especially sensitive to soap and heat.
  • As Dr. Vineet Menachery, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch recently said, “I wouldn’t expect any virus to survive a dishwasher.”

Aren’t disposables more safe?

  • No, they’re not when compared to properly washed reusables. Single-use disposables can harbor viruses and pathogenic bacteria. They are subject to whatever pathogens have settled on them from manufacture, transport, inventory stocking and eventual use.
  • In addition, according to a recently-released peer-reviewed scientific consensus statement, over 12,000 chemicals are used in food packaging, and many of them are hazardous to human health. Migration of these toxic chemicals out of disposables into our food and drinks is not an issue with non-plastic reusables.

Can I use my reusable water bottle or coffee cup?

  • Absolutely. Coronavirus mainly spreads through coughs and sneezes, not your reusable water bottle or cup.
    The best water refill options when you’re out and on-the-go are hands-free electronic water refilling stations like you see at the airport. If you don’t have easy access to one of these, then you can use the tap or the water cooler. Just don’t let your water bottle directly touch the spigot, and be mindful about washing your hands after touching communal surfaces.
  • The same logic applies to your coffee cup. Just don’t touch your cup directly to the spigot or coffee pot, and wash your hands.
    Also, don’t forget to wash your bottle or cup with soap and water, preferably in a dishwasher.

Large coffee chains (like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts) recently announced they were no longer allowing customers to bring their own cups to use and refill in its stores. Do you think this will continue, and what does this mean?

  • Today, businesses like Starbucks are rightly focused on how to keep us all safe. But when the coronavirus passes, plastic pollution will continue to be a huge environmental issue.
  • The coronavirus crisis is showing us that we don’t have the systems we need for reusable to-go, take-out and food delivery. Because of this, there is likely to be an explosion of single-use products as restaurants scramble to shift to food delivery to survive, and people shift to dining at home instead of eating out.
  • But in parts of the world, companies have already developed reusable to-go services for take-out and food delivery. These businesses provide clean, sanitized reusable cups and to-go containers to restaurants and cafes. The dirty ones are collected, washed and sanitized in commercial dishwashers, then put back into service.
  • Imagine a future with food delivery systems built on clean, sanitized reusable to-go containers and cups. We kind of have a great system to learn from here in Oregon through Go Box! How great would it be if we had reusable food delivery systems in place all over the United States like Portland’s very own Go Box, Green Tiffin and Planted Table in San Francisco, and Superfine Tiffins in New York City? Imagine how much less waste would be generated in this crisis if we had all this in place already.
  • And so, we’re going to continue to focus on how to help restaurants, cafes and venues – who are going to be greatly impacted – to be empowered and ready to make these changes. Especially because doing so can help them save money.

Will coronavirus kill the growing zero waste lifestyle, built on bring-your-own (BYO), reuse, and bulk shopping?

  • No, the zero waste lifestyle is here to stay and is gaining more traction every day. While the coronavirus will change many things in our lives for a time, it won’t change our core values like working for healthy people, a healthy planet and a sustainable economy.
  • But just like take-out and food delivery, this crisis is also showing us that we need better systems for BYO and bulk shopping. Hands-free dispensers and methods are part of the solution, as are on-site sanitizing for BYO. In addition, businesses can create new systems to provide clean, sanitized reusable containers for bulk purchasing on deposit – similar to how local dairies are bringing back the reusable milk bottle.
    We hope these thoughts and tips are useful to you as you navigate these difficult times. We’re going to be working to provide helpful insights, build community, and add value to your life in the coming months.

If you’re interested, sign up to receive e-mail updates from UPSTREAM or check out their super duper Indisposable Podcast. If you’ve got kids at home, check out their just-launched YouTube channel where they can learn about solutions to plastic pollution – including an episode on how kids got single-use plastic out of their school.