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Safe ways to reduce plastic waste

Even during the global pandemic, Plastic Free July participants have shown that people can still take action to reduce plastic waste and together make a difference for our planet. 

As many people spend more time at home and restrictions apply, there have been changes in the way we purchase and use goods and food. Whilst taking care of human health is critical, at the same there is an opportunity to reduce plastic waste, increase reuse and recycling efforts, and use valuable resources such as food more efficiently.

This guide contains information on how to safely use reusable items as well as other popular ideas to reduce waste that are relevant to being at home.

Coronavirus transmission and food and packaging

According to the World Health Organisation, to date, there is no evidence of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging [1]. The COVID-19 virus is generally thought to be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets – it is not a gastrointestinal virus. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of the COVID-19 virus associated with food [1] and we are not aware of any evidence that reusables present an increased risk of COVID-19 transmissions compared to single-use items.

Amongst other organisations, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises there is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of the virus causing COVID-19 [2]. The best advice is to thoroughly wash hands with soap when preparing fruit and vegetables and to rinse fresh produce with water just before you eat it [3].

Coronavirus and reusables

Many businesses want to make a difference and reduce plastic waste by accepting reusables but are unsure about laws and health guidelines and are concerned about risks to customers’ health. This guide provides information from several jurisdictions as well as popular ideas to ensure safety.

Many cafes are adopting creative ways to help keep reusable cups on cafe menus. The #ContactlessCoffee campaign by City to Sea and Responsible Cafes Pouring a Safe Coffee guide helps cafes and customers alike by promoting the latest best practice when it comes to reusables.

Food Standards Australia NZ (FSANZ) is the agency that develops food standards for Australia and New Zealand. There is nothing in the Food Standards Code that specifically covers consumers bringing in their own reusable cups or other reusable food service ware items [4]. Food businesses are responsible for the measures they put in place to ensure food is safe and suitable, including food packaging. 

In Australia and NZ, it is up to the business if they accept reusable cups. Businesses should have a policy around how they accept reusable cups, and cleaning and sanitising arrangements when accepting them. By making sure reusable cups are clean and holding onto the lid when purchasing takeaway drinks 

In Western Australia, Food Safety Guidelines state there is “currently no evidence to suggest there is any benefit in switching to disposable single-use food and beverage containers, cutlery and crockery. A food business may continue to use standard containers, cutlery and crockery with appropriate hygiene, cleaning and sanitation processes in place. Dishwashers should be used where available. Food businesses may continue to accept reusable cups and containers provided by the customer with appropriate hygiene and sanitation processes in place [5].

In the Huffington Post article ‘Is It OK To Use A Reusable Water Bottle During The Coronavirus Outbreak?’, scientists agreed that minimizing exposure should focus on washing hands, not eliminating the use of a reusable water bottle at work. When refilling at work or other public places, the advice is to be conscientious about ensuring the bottle doesn’t touch the communal spigot, regardless of a COVID-19 outbreak and make cleaning reusable water bottles a regular habit.

Reusable PPE and gloves

Many Plastic Free July participants switch to reusable fabric face masks to reduce plastic waste and avoid disposable masks. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that reusable (non-medical), fabric masks can be used by the general public under the age of 60 and who do not have underlying health conditions [7]. To wash fabric masks, use soap or detergent and preferably hot water (at least 60 degrees Centigrade/140 degrees Fahrenheit) at least once a day. If it is not possible to wash the mask in hot water, then wash it in soap/detergent and room temperature water, followed by boiling the mask for 1 minute.

The use of gloves by the public in public spaces is not a recommended or proven prevention measure according to the WHO.

Reducing waste at home

Everyone can make a difference and reduce plastic waste at home by properly planning meals, cooking with ingredients on hand (‘shopping’ in the fridge, freezer and pantry), and storing and freezing food to make it last longer. This not only saves money and ensures that the most is made of groceries purchased, but also means fewer trips to the store. 

Consider making a smoothie or banana bread from over-ripe bananas, turning wilted vegetables to make a stock or soup to freeze, oven baking thinly sliced stale bread to make crackers or using leftover roast vegetables in a salad. A popular choice for leftovers is packing into a reusable container for lunch the next day, even if that office desk is in your home!

At all times, maintaining good hygiene practices when handling food and beverages and using reusables is recommended. Before preparing or eating food, it is important to wash your hands with soap and water and always follow regular food safety and handling guidelines. 

Other popular ideas for reducing plastic waste include switching from liquid soap to bar soap, choosing reusable cloth nappies/diapers and menstrual products (such as reusable pads, period pants and menstrual cups), switching to paper-wrapped toilet paper and switching to products in cardboard packaging. Consider sprouting seeds from lentils and growing herbs from cuttings in the kitchen, on a balcony or a vegetable patch, if you have room.

Information

In July 2020, over 125 health experts from 19 countries signed onto a statement assuring retailers and consumers that reusables are safe during COVID-19 [8]. The health experts emphasized that disposable products are not inherently safer than reusables and that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.

“Public health must include maintaining the cleanliness of our home, the Earth,” said Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center. “The promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to the coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils.”

We will continue to update this page, as any new information comes to hand, from the experts regarding the use of reusables during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. If you have any peer-reviewed literature or published guidelines in your area to add to this, please contact us at info@plasticfreejuly.org and we will endeavour to update this resource. In the meantime, stay safe and thanks for your efforts to be part of a world without plastic waste – The Plastic Free July team, 21 June 2021.

References 

  1. World Health Organization on cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in non-health care settings 
  2. COVID-19 Update: USDA, FDA Underscore Current Epidemiologic and Scientific Information Indicating No Transmission of COVID-19 Through Food or Food Packaging – 18 February 2021
  3. The wash-up on coronavirus and food – CSIRO 3 April 2020
  4. Novel Coronavirus and Food Safety – Food Standards Australia and New Zealand
  5. COVID Safety Guidelines: Food and Licensed Venues – Western Australia
  6. Is It OK To Use A Reusable Water Bottle During The Coronavirus Outbreak? – Huffington Post 3 March 2020 
  7. World Health Organization on masks 
  8. Health Expert Statement Addressing Safety of Reusables and COVID-19 – 22 June 2020
People Working Plastic Free July Foundation

Think about it. Why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever, and you’re just going to throw it away. What’s up with that?

Jeb Berrier, Bag It movie

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