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Waste and coronavirus


A casualty of coronavirus has certainly been the zero-waste movement. It crept in early on, with cafés refusing to accept reusable cups in a bid to reduce contamination risk. And I get it – they don’t know if your cup is clean. I would never hand over a dirty cup but I have heard some horror stories from baristas. The manufacturer KeepCup tried to combat this, releasing tips for consumers and demonstrating ‘no touch’ coffee pours but to no avail.

Then cafés went further and stopped using any reusable cups for dine in options too – I didn’t quite understand this (although I commend the intent of the café owners in keeping their customers safe). I’m just not convinced takeaway cups are necessarily cleaner. How many staff members walk by where they are kept? How do we know someone hasn’t sneezed on the pile of lids? I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a barista washing their hands, but I trust that they did at the start of their shift before they put the lid on my coffee cup. I would assume a mug that has recently been through a commercial dishwasher would be cleaner? All of this is a moot point anyway since the government banned anything but takeaway service from cafes and restaurants.

Reusable bags have also received backlash, with some dubious reports claiming the COVID-19 virus lives longer on their surface compared to others and recommending using plastic bags and throwing them away. One US state even banned the use of reusable bags! Greenpeace USA released a report refuting this and slamming the plastics industry for taking advantage of the situation. The report states: “Two recent studies have concluded that plastics are among the surfaces that human coronaviruses may survive on for the longest, of several surfaces. After these studies were publicised in media outlets, several media outlets began portraying researcher “warnings” about the potential for reusable grocery bags to transmit the new coronavirus, despite the fact that reusable grocery bags were not among the surfaces examined. Several articles reference older studies that demonstrated the transmission of certain bacteria via reusable bags, without mentioning that those studies were funded by the plastics industry, nor the finding that bags could be disinfected with washing.
“These narratives falsely conflate those older studies on bacteria on reusable bags with new studies about coronaviruses to “prove” that single-use plastic bags are the safest way to prevent transmission of coronavirus. This is a deflection from the recent studies demonstrating that the virus will persist on plastic longer than almost any material examined, which could call into question the safety of the majority of plastic-packaged items in supermarkets.”

I do hope this is just a pause on the movement (the entire world feels like it is on pause!). It may even seem trivial to think about it while we are still very deep in the getting-through-it-stage, but time to think is in abundance at the moment.

On a positive note, there are some zero waste benefits that have emerged from this. It seems like everyone now wants to bake their own bread, so that will be less soft plastics consumed. The toilet paper company Who Gives a Crap? is now known far and wide and hopefully retains it’s new customers (although how long it will be before they actually need more toilet paper is anyone’s guess!). With even seeds and seedlings cleared from shop shelves across the state hopefully people are taking this time to look at sustainable gardening options, compost systems, worm farms and the like. Laura from Thrive Sustainability’s article to the left has some great tips if you find yourself new to the veggie garden game!