Hope Armstrong
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Climate Crisis

Reusables and COVID-19

Reusables and COVID-19

On May 28th, the Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA hosted an online webinar about COVID-19 and reusables. The event focused on the increase in single-use disposables as a result of the pandemic, as well as ideas for regaining the momentum that was building in support of reusables. The event was moderated by the Ecology Center's Community Engagement Program Director Denaya Shorter, and the panel included:

  • Professor Kate O'Neill from the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley
  • Caroline Cox, a retired Senior Scientist from the Center for Environmental Health
  • Dagny Tucker, the Co-Founder of Vessel, a reusable cup service
  • Jessica Heiges, a Ph.D. Student in Waste Management at UC Berkeley

Single-use Plastics vs. Reusables

It’s worth noting that the environmental impact of reusables is not cut-and-dry. 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 key question is: How many times do you need to use it to offset the production of it? There are several factors; is it hand-washed or commercially washed? Where are the materials sourced from? What are the emissions in the distribution chain? And so on. For example, Jessica Heiges, a Ph.D. Student in Waste Management at UC Berkeley, noted that you’d need to use a stainless steel bottle about 30-60 times to reach a break-even point. Of course, you should strive to use it as long as possible. Dagny Tucker, the Co-Founder of Vessel, a reusable cup service, said that the break-even point for Vessel’s reusable stainless steel cups is 18-21 times. Another factor to include is the impact the materials have on our health. While plastic has a comparatively lower carbon footprint than stainless steel, plastic contains PFAS chemicals that bioaccumulate in our bodies and hang around the environment for a long time. In the body, they act as hormone disrupters, and while the impact of these chemicals is still being studied, research suggests it may cause altered metabolism, fertility issues, reduced fetal growth, a weight increase, and a less efficient immune system (National Institute of Environmental Health Services). Reducing plastic use and increasing reuse is definitely the way to go.


The discussion kicked off with a recap of the state of reusables prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Prior to COVID-19, plastic pollution had gained global attention, including media coverage, grassroots campaigns, and regional bans. Reusables gained a lot of traction, resulting in increased individual actions as well as new public policies. Berkeley, CA was the first city to enact a single-use ordinance. With a multi-phased approach which is currently in progress and will continue to roll out over the coming years, the Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance financially incentivizes consumers to bring reusable cups, instructs restaurants to provide certified compostable takeout containers, and (in its final phase) requires reusable foodware for dine-in. To support businesses who need help with the transition, there are technical assistance and mini-grants. There are also hardship waivers, although I imagine they are limited. There has been much excitement for this ordinance, including several small restaurants and even a local McDonald’s franchise owner.

Now: During the Pandemic

Since the pandemic started, there has been a sudden resurgence in single-use plastic. Stores have resorted to using more plastic bags, restaurants have switched to a take-out only business model that relies on takeout containers, and there’s been a surge in demand for PPE (particularly masks). When the webinar audience was polled, 72% said their use of single-use disposables has increased since COVID-19. I’m definitely in that group; not out of preference, but out of necessity. It’s much more difficult to avoid plastic packaging these days.

When asked about the threats to progress, UC Berkeley Professor Kate O'Neill responded with a couple of explanations. First, she addressed the issue of public trust, which she carefully pointed out as having existed prior to the pandemic; now it’s even more apparent. There’s a subset of people who distrust reusables. They’re concerned about the hygiene implications: what happens when a dirty mug is brought into a cafe, and the barista handles it for a refill? And some people are, frankly, grossed out by bulk bins. Secondly, the price of oil has plunged, which as a result has driven the cost of virgin plastic down. Businesses opt for cheaper plastics made of new materials instead of paying a premium for more sustainable alternatives.

Plastic bags

Many U.S. cities and counties with plastic bag bans have temporarily lifted the bans, and stores have reverted to using plastic bags. Here in Alameda County, we’ve been enjoying a single-use plastic bag ban since 2016—until recently when the ordinance was suspended due to coronavirus concerns. Over in New York state, there was growing excitement for a statewide Bag Waste Reduction Law which took effect on March 1, 2020, but it has since been suspended due to the pandemic. Reusable bags have been banned from many stores, out of fear they will spread the coronavirus. In fact, this is an overreaction because research has shown that reusable bags are not riskier than other items in a supermarket. In order to limit contact with grocery workers, shoppers can bag their own groceries.

Caroline Cox, a retired Senior Scientist from the Center for Environmental Health, addressed the concern folks have with reusable bags. She emphasized that while we’re still learning about the coronavirus, it’s currently understood that the primary route of infection is from breathing particles. Being nearby someone who is singing, talking, coughing, sneezing, or otherwise expelling droplets will put you at more risk than coming in contact with an infectious surface. Cox gave this example: if an infected person went into a grocery store and sneezed on a single-use grocery bag, their germs would get all over it. If someone were to touch the bag then touch their face, they’d be at risk of getting the virus, although they would get fewer particles than breathing it in. Therefore, they would have a lower likelihood of becoming infected, but it is possible. So, it’s not so much about comparing a disposable bag to a reusable bag. What matters is what happened to the bag. She emphasized that washing hands and maintaining distance from others are the most important preventative measures.

Take out containers

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, was recently interviewed by Ella Sogomonian at KRON4, a local bay area network. The Ecology Center operates a curbside recycling program in Berkeley, CA. He reported a 30% increase in residential recycling (glass, cardboard, and plastic) and noted an increase in online purchasing and take out food. Further, more people eating at home has resulted in more disposing at home. On the flip side, he noted a reduction in business waste due to the closure of many businesses. When businesses reopen, he expects to see the business waste increase again, although he’s hopeful Berkeley’s recent reusable food ware and takeout ordinance will cause a reduction in waste as time goes on.

Bulk bins closed

Prior to the pandemic, being able to shop in bulk bins allowed me to shop package-free. Unfortunately, bulk bins have been closed off in recent months, as a preventative measure to lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus. An audience member asked if she can get infected by touching a bulk bin. Caroline Cox, a retired Senior Scientist from the Center for Environmental Health, gave a similar response to the question about reusable bags being contagious. It’s all about what happens to the bulk bin. If a contagious person sneezes on it, the bin will be infectious. However, the air around the bulk bin will be more contagious. She mentioned that an infected person can sneeze in the cereal aisle and make a box of cereal infectious. It’s the same issue; the bulk bin is not more of a contagion than anything else. Of course, one can argue that bulk bins, particularly the scoops, are handled more than a box of cereal. UC Berkeley Professor Kate O'Neill noted that the pandemic may lead to worthwhile improvements in the bulk bin process.

PPE (masks, gloves, gowns)

The medical industry has been heroically handling this public health crisis, and I’m all for them having the supplies they need to be safe. That includes single-use disposable PPE. Although I wish for the creation of reusable medical equipment, I’m not here to criticize the use of disposables in the medical industry. For everyday household use, however, I do think it’s worthwhile to invest in reusable cloth masks. Cloth masks can be washed and reused many times and are comparable to surgical masks in their efficacy. While not as effective as an N-95 mask, it appears they are sufficient for most people who do not work in a hospital or are not around infected people. It’s worth mentioning that disposable PPE is not recyclable. Disposable PPE used in a household should be disposed of in the garbage can at its end-of-use; not in the recycling bin. Unfortunately, I’ve seen masks left in the streets, which unfortunately is how plastic ends up clogging gutters, polluting waterways, and entering the food chain.

Going Forward

Reusable food ware systems

In terms of strategic next steps, UC Berkeley Professor Kate O'Neill advocated for creating and supporting reusable systems such as Vessel. Vessel is a reusable cup service that allows folks to check out a stainless steel cup at point of sale, such as at a cafe. When the cup is returned, it gets cleaned professionally before becoming available to the next patron. O’Neill argued this is easier to implement than personal reusables brought into a cafe for a refill. She expects we’ll continue to have a difficult time with personal reusables acceptance, where hygiene concerns will persist.

Dagny Tucker, the Co-Founder of Vessel, spoke about the safety protocols her company has in place. Employees handle the clean, reusable cups just as they would a disposable cup. The main difference is that customers return the stainless steel cup to the cafe or a kiosk when they’re done using it. They’re placed directly into a box and professionally cleaned in a washing facility. Vessel has adjusted the checkout process since the pandemic, to reduce contact. At point-of-sale, the employee picks up a reusable cup, and the consumer scans it on their phone. Previously, the cup would trade hands, but now the cup doesn’t cross over to the customer until the purchase is finalized. Recently, Tucker had a conversation with the health department, and they felt confident about the protocols she put in place to keep people safe.

Vessel is currently in the process of developing a contactless delivery service and is hoping to partner with delivery services such as DoorDash and GrubHub. She urged folks to let the delivery services know about a preference for reusable to-go containers. With enough people voicing support for these systems, the companies will become willing to make changes. Vessel has pilot programs in Boulder, CO and Berkeley, CA. For folks in the SF Bay Area, there’s a new food delivery service called Dispatch Goods that delivers food in reusable containers. They’re beginning to partner with a limited number of restaurants, so stay tuned. Until more reusable food systems are rolled out, there are a few things you can do to limit the takeout packaging you receive. After all, it is very important to support local businesses that are struggling during this time. Let the restaurant or delivery app know you don’t need utensils, napkins, or condiments. I’ve found they’re happy to oblige, especially since it saves them the cost of those extra goods.

Public education on health and social justice implications

There’s also a need for public awareness of the impact single-use plastics have on environmental and human health. Jessica Heiges, a Ph.D. Student in Waste Management at UC Berkeley said she equates environmental health with human health. She looks at the upstream and downstream impacts. Upstream impacts are everything pre-consumer, which includes manufacturing and transportation. Downstream impacts are everything post-consumer, which includes landfills, greenhouse gasses emitted from incinerators, microplastics that pollute the ocean and food chain, and macro plastics that pollute everywhere else. Plastic impacts human health by infiltrating the water, air, and ground. Exposure to plastic chemicals, such as PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive/developmental issues, liver and kidney issues, immunological effects, and increased cholesterol levels (epa.gov). Further, she highlighted the fact that people of color are disproportionately affected by the adverse health outcomes, whether that’s because their communities are being polluted by industry or because of the materials they’re coming in contact with. The intersection of social justice, human health, and the environmental movement need to be made more clear to the general public.

New California ballot initiative

Signatures are being collected for a new ballot initiative which aims to reduce plastic pollution in California. If enough signatures are gathered, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act of 2020 will appear on the ballot in November. Initiated by Recology SF and widely supported by zero waste advocacy groups, the act intends to shift responsibility away from the consumer and onto the manufacturers. Here are the highlights—see it in full here.

Give CalRecycle the authority to require producers of single-use plastic packaging and foodware to:

  • Transition to reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging and foodware by 2030
  • Follow guidelines set by the agency defining reusable, recyclable and compostable
  • Set standards for labeling and marketing to improve the proper sorting of waste materials
  • Set a statewide baseline and reduce the amount of single-use packaging and foodware by no less than 25% by 2030
  • Ban the use of polystyrene by food vendors statewide
  • Improve convenient consumer access to recycling (e.g., retailer takeback programs)

It will also introduce a sliding scale Plastic Pollution Reduction Fee on producers of up to 1¢ per item, which will be determined by CalRecycle dependent on the recyclability or composability of each material type and form. The fee will fund various environmental programs. Jessica Heiges, a Ph.D. Student in Waste Management at UC Berkeley, said she’s a big fan of it but noted there is hesitancy around it because of the current economic situation. As one of the most promising policy changes in action, I’m hopeful it will lead to lasting positive changes.

Fingers crossed

Overall, the consensus was to be strategic in terms of how we direct policy change. The plastic industry and food manufactures will continue to fight against taking responsibility for the impact their products have on the environment, but we must remain vigilant and advocate for better systems that promote sustainability. I hope this gave you a sense of where things stand in regard to the state of reusables and gave you some ideas for how to move forward.

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