More than 100 academics, scientists and doctors have come together to tell retailers and consumers that reusable containers are safe to use during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A statement, signed by 119 experts made up of virologists, epidemiologists, biologists, chemists, and doctors from 18 countries, says that reusable systems can be safely used with basic hygiene measures.
Scientists seek to reassure public as campaigners fear battle to reduce single-use plastic waste is losing ground
The pandemic has triggered discussion about how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis, with some retailers suspending their refill schemes.
Some cafes have stopped accepting reusable cups during the pandemic, raising fears that the push for sustainable and reusable packaging is being set back. Campaigners have also recently accused the plastic industry of exploiting the crisis to lobby against bans on single-use plastics.
In March, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UCLA and Princeton University looked at how long Covid-19 lasts on certain materials. Conducted for the US National Institutes for Health, it found that the virus can last for two or three days on plastic and stainless steel. The study also discovered it was detectable for up to four hours on copper and 24 hours on cardboard.
Based on these findings, signatories to the reusable packaging statement say people can assume that any object or surface in a public space — regardless of whether it’s reusable or disposable — could be contaminated with the virus.
It went on to say that single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and can also cause additional public health concerns once it’s discarded.
The statement also says that, based upon the best available evidence, the virus primarily spreads from inhaling aerosolised droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces.
One of the report’s signatories, University of Oxford chemistry professor Charlotte Williams, said: “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.”
Dr Jennifer Cole, a public health policy adviser at the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health and a research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, added: “I feel it is vitally important that we do not let the impact Covid-19 has had on human health be used as an excuse to further damage the health of our planet.
“Reusable cups and utensils can be washed; loose bread rolls and fruit in shops can be picked up by using the paper bag they will then be placed in, without the need for immediately discarded plastic gloves.
Nina Schrank, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “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. “
How to safely use reusable containers during Covid-19
In order to ensure staff and consumers are safe when using reusable products at this time, the signatories say retailers must thoroughly clean reusable items with soap and water. Alongside this, it says ware-washing at high temperatures along with additional sanitising procedures would provide more than adequate protection against virus transmission.
The statement also says businesses should follow additional Covid-19 hygiene guidance from the US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Retailers are recommended to wash, rinse, and sanitise food contact surfaces, dishware, utensils, food preparation surfaces and beverage equipment after use, and to frequently disinfect surfaces repeatedly touched by employees or customers.
In addition to this, it says businesses should verify that their ware-washing machines are operating at the required wash and rinse temperature and with the appropriate detergents and sanitisers.
Another recommendation outlined in the reusable containers statement is for retailers to use contact-free systems for consumers’ bags and cups.
Avoiding contact between a customer’s reusable cup, container, or bag and retail surfaces can protect workers and provide a precautionary approach to addressing Covid-19 transmission. It recommends that when customers bring their bags, employees should be instructed to not touch or place groceries in them, ask customers to leave them in the shopping cart, and bag their own groceries.
The final recommendation brought forward by the signatories is that retailers must ensure that workers are protected.