Reusables are safe to use during pandemic, say experts

A group of 119 experts and scientists have signed a statement reassuring the public that reusable containers are safe to use during the Covid-19 pandemic, provided hygiene measures are followed.

Released on Monday (22 June), the group of experts from 18 countries, supported by environmental campaign groups Greenpeace and UPSTREAM, were responding to public concerns over the safety of reusable containers, such as cups, bottles and jars, for food and drinks.

Though public opinion has been increasingly against single-use plastics for some time, there has been a shift back towards single-use plastics during the pandemic. Encouraged by certain sectors, due to the belief that single-use packaging can help limit the spread of the virus, several retailers, particularly coffee shops, have refused to take reusables temporarily.

However, these claims over the safety of single-use containers and packaging have been rebuffed by the group of experts, who explain that the available evidence indicates that the Covid-19 virus spreads primarily from inhaling droplets in the air, rather than through contact with surfaces.

Dr Jennifer Cole, Northern European Regional Hub Coordinator of the Planetary Health Alliance at Royal Holloway University of London, who signed the statement, said: "I feel it is vitally important that we do not let the impact Covid-19 has had on human health be used as an excuse to further damage the health of our planet. Reusable cups and utensils can be washed; loose bread rolls and fruit in shops can be picked up by using the paper bag they will then be placed in, without the need for immediately discarded plastic gloves."

The group of experts state that the virus sticks to contact surfaces for varying times depending on the material and any object in a public space should be considered as potentially contaminated, whether single-use or reusable. To minimise the risk of infection, containers should be thoroughly washed with hot water and detergent or soap, while people should adhere to hygiene practices such as regularly washing hands and avoiding touching their face.

Regarding retailers, the experts suggest best practice for handling customers’ reusable containers, including complying with food safety and health codes, using additional hygiene practices for Covid-19, employing contact-free systems for customers’ personal cups and bottles, and ensuring that workers have sufficient protection.

Bristol-based marine pollution campaign group City to Sea has been trying to drive the uptake of reusable cups in the wake of the pandemic. City to Sea also aims to raise awareness about best practice in terms of bringing reusable cups to cafes, which, now supported by the group of experts, involves reminding customers to wash their hands and reusables with hot water and soap, and suggesting that retailers use contact-free systems for reusables and comply with food safety and health codes.

Nina Schrank, campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “More and more of us own reusable cups and bottles to cut down on throwaway plastic and protect our wildlife, seas and rivers. Covid-19 has changed many of our routines, so it’s great that more than 100 experts have reassured us that reusable containers can be safe for food, drinks and other groceries during the pandemic, if washed properly.”

Legislative delays

Furthermore, aside from discussion surrounding the health and safety implications of reusables, the disruption to public life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has caused delay in legislative efforts to tackle single-use plastics.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced on 15 April its plan to postpone the ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, which would have come into effect at the end of April 2020, to October this year. Similarly, the UK Government’s Environment Bill, which includes provisions for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging and a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, has been suspended due to the virus, with Environment Secretary George Eustice saying the Bill should pass through to the committee stage by September.

However, it is not just Covid-19 that is negatively impacting on the future of the waste and resources sector. According to a recent update from Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations co-ordinated by think tank Green Alliance, the risk posed to the waste and resources industry by Brexit is said to have increased over the last few months, with the UK falling increasingly further behind EU standards and ambition.

While the EU is forging ahead with its Single Use Plastics Directive, which would see an EU-wide ban of single-use plastics, and the Circular Economy Action Plan, which establishes a concrete programme of action for the production, consumption and management of waste, the UK is delaying action.