Is It Safe to Be "Zero Waste" During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

April 20, 2020

Now that most of us are taking precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones from contracting the coronavirus, some businesses that remain open with certain restrictions are also barring customers from bringing in their own reusable cups and containers. For example, many coffee chains, including Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Dunkin’, and Second Cup, have announced that they will not allow customers to use their own personal cups or mugs for the time being.

Even some grocery stores are changing their policies around customers bringing reusables, like the Canadian grocery chain Bulk Barn, which introduced a reusable container program in 2017. Bulk Barn is now putting that program on pause and telling customers that they will have to use single-use containers and bags. People are also becoming concerned about catching the virus from buying used clothing—the company Rent the Runway, which rents out secondhand clothes to customers for special events, has had to issue a statement letting people know that yes, it is still safe to wear thrifted clothing.


But do we really have to be afraid of continuing with our zero-waste habits? Do you have to ditch your reusables until this pandemic is over? Short answer: As long as you’re careful about cleaning them, you should be totally fine. Disposable, single-use products are not necessarily cleaner and safer than reusables (of course, medical supplies can be an exception to this rule).

The idea that disposables are a more sanitary choice compared to reusables actually dates back to the 1950s. When companies began introducing plastic packaging and products, they advertised them as a cleaner alternative to products that you needed to wash and reuse. After all, if a product had never been used before, it had to be pristine, right?

Well, that was never really more than a clever marketing tactic—because disposable products have been touched plenty of times before they get to you, anyway. Of course, if you don’t clean your reusables regularly, they can get pretty dirty and potentially harbor germs and bacteria. That’s why if you’re still using them during this pandemic, it’s crucial to be very careful about cleaning them properly. The good news is that running the dishwasher or scrubbing your dishes with hot water and liquid dish soap should be quite effective against the virus.

Concerned about the canvas bags that you bring to the grocery store? Don’t worry, if your local grocery store is not telling customers that they are required to use single-use bags, you can still go ahead and use them. But it’s definitely important to toss them in the washing machine when you get back from the store!

Moral of the story? Yes, it is still safe to use your reusables! However, it’s also very important to respect the rules of whichever business from which you purchase your food or drinks. If employees say that customers have to use single-use disposables for the foreseeable future, you can either choose to patronize that business in accordance with their new rules, or you can seek out an alternative. Right now, the easiest and safest thing to do is simply use the groceries that you have at home and try to cook in your own kitchen as often as possible, rather than getting coffee from the Starbucks drive-through or ordering take out.


And most importantly, remember that right now, we’re all just trying to do our best to get through the day. Maybe you do normally try to reduce the amount of plastic you use, but your job is classified as essential, your schedule is busier than ever before, and you’ve been ordering takeout because you haven’t had time to cook. Or maybe you’ve been relying on plastic bottles of hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes because that’s all that was left at your grocery store when you went to stock up on cleaning supplies a couple of weeks ago. If scenarios like this sound familiar, it’s perfectly fine.

None of us are truly “zero waste,” and if you’re struggling to stick with some of your normal habits and routines right now, you don’t need to criticize yourself for it—billions of other human beings are in the exact same boat. If we all do our best to practice social distancing and stay home, the current restrictions can be lifted sooner, and you’ll be able to break out your favorite thermos for your trips to the coffee shop. Until then, we’ll just be hunkering down and doing our best to deal with this “new normal.”



Photo: Unsplash

Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She writes about veganism, travel, and wellness, and her writing has been published on platforms like Thought Catalog, Student Universe, The Financial Diet, and Wholesome Culture. She blogs daily on Medium, and you can check out more of her work on her website.


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