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Reusables During A Pandemic

Zero-Waste Tips To Re-Boot Your Plastic-Free Lifestyle


Article contributed by Sandra Ann Harris

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In early 2020, the tide started to turn against plastic pollution as people fought back against the tidal wave of single-use plastics and swapped disposables for reusables. But when Covid-19 hit, plastic pollution progress was suddenly put in reverse as attention shifted to health safety. Now, single-use masks, plastic gloves, to-go containers, bags and more plastic products are littering our streets, waterways, beaches, parks and beyond.

The reusables movement has been playing defense ever since, trying to get grocery stores to go back to allowing customers to make simple plastic-free choices like bring their own bags. The new pandemic normal rolled back the clock on strides that had been taken to legalize and popularize the use of reusables. Plastic-free lifestyle aficionados and activists suddenly were no longer able to use their own cup to purchase coffee or their own food reusable containers for restaurant takeout.

Why was the global shift to reusables hit so hard and what can we do about it? Harking back to the early days of the pandemic, you’ll recall that scientists warned us of the risks of surface transmission of the virus. Some of us even washed our groceries before bringing them into our homes to protect against contamination.

Virus Spreads Primarily through Air Transmission - Not Necessarily Surface

The virus is mainly an airborne risk. It can spread through inhaling aerosolized droplets. Read more from the CDC on how the virus spreads

[From the CDC site: "COVID-19 spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces - Respiratory droplets can also land on surfaces and objects. It is possible that a person could get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. Spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads. - emphasis added by Editor]

"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 COVID-19 negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils."

More than 100 scientists have signed on to a health safety statement standing in support of the safety of reusables - even during the pandemic.

“Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of conflicting information about how the virus is spread, but we now know that surfaces are not the main way we’re exposed,” said Matt Prindiville of Upstream, a plastic pollution education and advocacy non-profit. “Plastic harms our health along the entire supply chain. Fortunately, the coronavirus is easily destroyed by proper washing, so restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses can still serve us using reusable items in ways that protect health without harming the environment.”

From PPE (personal protective equipment), packaging and single-use items used for food delivery and distribution, 2020 is on track to see a 30% increase in waste production from 2019, according to a recent study. Here are some strategies to avoid unnecessary plastic even during Covid times.

Exit Grocery Stores Without Plastic Bags

Instead of accepting the single-use plastic bags many grocery stores have reverted to, ask the checker to ring you up and put your purchases back in your cart. Roll your cart to your car and pack groceries into your reusable bags as you unload into your car trunk. Plus, ask your local grocery to re-open their stores to BYO bag again.

Refuse Single-Use Takeout Containers

When you purchase takeout food, make sure you leave a note in the online ordering portal, or with the telephone order taker, specifying that you do not want any single-use extras packed with your meal. Say goodbye to single-use plastic cutlery, single-serving ketchup and other condiment packets, and disposable napkins. Plus, ask restaurant managers to stop automatically including these single-use throw-aways with orders and only provide upon customer request. Recommend biodegradable birch or bamboo utensils in lieu of throw-away plastic cutlery.

Keep Reusables Handy On the Go

Pack a reusables to-go kit to use on the fly. Include plastic-free bento boxes, plates, metal or bamboo cutlery, washable napkins, beverage containers, reusable straws, masks, gloves, bags and anything else you’ll need out in the world during pandemic times. With reusables on hand, it’s easy to say no to the plastic fork, plastic straw, etc… even if you make a spontaneous smoothie purchase, get lunch to go at a favorite restaurant, etc. Plus, pack a few extras so you can share the joy of the reusable lifestyle with a friend.

Adiós Disposable PPE

Swap disposable polypropylene masks and gloves for washable reusables! There are many reusable mask options available online and in stores. When it comes to gloves, dish gloves, light-weight garden gloves and even cotton gloves sold in fine art stores all work well.

Plastic-Free Shipments

When shopping online, choose companies with planet-centric shipping practices that carbon offset shipments by packing all orders plastic-free (kraft tape instead of plastic, recycled dunnage paper instead of peanuts and plastic pillows, recyclable cardboard boxes instead of trashy padded plastic envelopes).

Plus, if you’re buying from Amazon, go to main search bar and enter keywords “Amazon Customer Service,” select chat and request that you want your account flagged to receive plastic-free shipments. Chat service is automated, so persist beyond the robot answers until your request is escalated to a human associate. Going forward, you should not receive plastic in your shipments. For other stores, add a customer note at checkout requesting a plastic-free, carbon offset shipment or send an email to the company.

Buy Hand Sanitizer In Bulk

It’s handy to have a small vial of hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket. Instead of repeatedly buying and discarding small containers, buy sanitizer in bulk and refill small containers as they run out. Plus, ask schools, offices, gyms and other businesses to offer refillable hand sanitizer stations.

Touchless To-Go Coffee

When you order your coffee at a cafe, ask them to prepare it in a “for here” cup. You can pour it into your to-go mug, which the barista probably isn’t allowed to touch. Plus, celebrate the cafe’s commitment to plastic-free takeout by saying thank you and commenting positively on social media.

Avoid Single-Use Wipes

Use a disinfectant spray with a reusable cloth instead of throw-away, single-use wipes, which are not recyclable or biodegradable. Plus, help others learn they can stop using single-use wipes by explaining how you use a spray with a reusable cloth.


Sandra Ann Harris is the author of “Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide For Plastic-Free Living” published in October 2020 by Hatherleigh Press. Her passion is protecting the oceans by reducing people's dependence on plastics. Her company ECOlunchbox, which she founded in 2008, innovates and sells high-quality, plastic-free food container solutions. She has a diverse background in business consulting, product development, investigative journalism, and digital marketing strategy, along with her work in the non-profit sector for a humanitarian aid organization. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


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