Reusable containers are still safe to use during the coronavirus pandemic as they don’t increase the chance of viral transmission, according to a statement signed by more than 100 scientists from around the world. The initiative comes amid a growing demand for single-use plastics around the world.
Shops and cafes in many cities have stopped accepting reusable cups during the pandemic, prompting environmentalists and researchers alike to sound the alarm. Plastic pollution represents one of the most challenging environmental problems of our time, with about 8 million tons of plastic trash leaking into the ocean annually.
Reusable bottles and cups are safe as long as they are cleaned properly
The statement was signed by a group of epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, chemists, and doctors from around the world, who argued that reusable items can still be safely used if basic hygiene is employed – according to the best available science and guidance from public health organizations.
“I hope we can come out of the Covid-19 crisis more determined than ever to solve the pernicious problems associated with plastics in the environment. In terms of the general public’s response to the COVID crisis, we should make every attempt to avoid over-consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in applications like packaging,” Charlotte Williams, one of the signatories, told The Guardian.
The scientists' said that the novel coronavirus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC), droplets are the only documented method of transmission to date.
At the same time, the scientists claimed that disposable products present similar issues as reusable ones. Studies show the virus can remain infectious on surfaces for varying times depending on the material. For example, a study showed the virus lasts up to 24 hours on paper and between 2-3 days on plastic and steel.
“To prevent transmission through objects and surfaces, one can assume that any object or surface in a public space — reusable or disposable — could be contaminated with the virus. Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” the statement reads.
In their statement, the scientists provided a set of tips for the use of reusable products. The list includes washing reusable containers thoroughly with hot water and detergent or soap, employing contact-free systems for customers’ personal bags and cups and complying with food safety and health codes.
A bad outlook for the ocean
Plastics from the coronavirus epidemic are becoming a severe problem in the oceans. Divers from the French NGO Opération Mer Propre recently found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in the ocean — mixed with the usual plastic waste. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the NGO OceansAsia expressed similar concerns.
The plastic gloves and masks, like other plastic products, eventually break down and add to the wide collection of microplastics that can be found in the ocean. The risks of microplastics for human health is still being studied. But one possibility is that since plastics are added chemicals when they are manufactured those chemicals could be released in the body.
Restrictions on single-use plastics are also being paused or rolled back while governments deal with the health crisis. The United Kingdom suspended a charge on plastic bags, while a ban on such items was also put on hold in some states in the United States such as Maine. At the same time, retailers including Starbucks have banned the use of reusable products.
Nina Schrank, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian: “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. “