Health experts push back against plastic industry to declare safety of reusables during COVID-19

119 experts from 18 countries, including virologists, epidemiologists, biologists, chemists and doctors, have signed a statement reassuring consumers that it can be safe to use reusable containers like cups, bottles and jars for food, drinks and other groceries, as long as they are thoroughly washed.

The statement comes after the plastic industry used its own industry-funded research to challenge the safety of reusable containers during the COVID-19 global pandemic, in order to increase demand for single-use plastic, but the signatories agree that single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded.

Reuse and refill systems are an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy, but since lockdown began, the UK ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has been paused and some cafes have chosen not to accept reusable containers temporarily. Costa Coffee announced on 5 June that they are accepting reusable coffee cups and water bottles, having updated their operating procedures to ensure there is no contact with the lid/drinking area.

The pandemic has triggered an important discussion about how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis. The experts who signed today’s statement say that, based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.

They explain that the available evidence indicates that the COVID-19 virus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets, rather than through contact with surfaces.

Studies show that the virus can remain infectious on surfaces for varying times depending on the material, so to prevent transmission as much as possible, it is sensible for consumers to assume that any object or surface in a public space – reusable or disposable – could be contaminated with the virus. Their advice for consumers is to thoroughly wash reusable containers with hot water and detergent or soap. They remind people to also wash their hands with soap and hot water or an alcohol-based hand rub, and to avoid touching their eyes, mouth or nose.

The experts also suggest best practices for retailers on handling their customers’ reusable containers, including complying with food safety and health codes, using additional hygiene practices for COVID-19, employing contact-free systems for customers’ personal cups and bottles, and ensuring that workers are protected.

Dr Jennifer Cole, Northern European Regional Hub Coordinator of the Planetary Health Alliance, Royal Holloway University of London, who signed the statement, said: “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. The lockdown has given many of us pause to reconnect with our gardens, local parks and the natural world around us.

"As our old lives resume we must make time and space to protect and nurture healthier environments to ensure a healthier future for all.”

Professor Charlotte K. Williams, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, who signed the statement, 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.”

Nina Schrank, 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.

“The supermarkets, other retailers and coffee shops can now make great strides towards significantly reducing the volume of single-use plastic we use. They should open up more opportunities for the reusable cups and bottles we’re already used to, and get going on creating more systems for reusables and refills that can be rolled out all across the UK, like options to fill jars and reuse bottles in supermarkets.”