The rise of reusables

18 November 2020

As of 1 October 2020, the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton buds was banned in England, following Scotland’s ban in 2019. This signifies the growing commitment across the UK to address single use plastics – and the effect they are having on our oceans and environment.

The Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), approved in March 2019 by the European Parliament, was considered Europe’s first serious step to tackling plastic pollution and furthering the drive for a circular economy. The law will ban certain single use plastic items by 2021 and introduce new recycling rates on plastics. This significant step in driving a circular economy and pushing business and society to explore more closed-loop solutions around their single use plastics, was before Covid-19 hit. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we are faced with a fresh onslaught of single use plastics being used to tackle the spread of the virus.

Before this pandemic changed lives all over the world, Resource Futures had just begun an exciting new project with Zero Waste Scotland as part of a £1m fund to tackle the use of disposable items with Scottish businesses, community groups and the general public. Our education team in Devon had also filmed as part of a major new environmental film, “Plastic Britain: On Our Watch”, that tackles the plastic pollution crisis in Britain. It seemed that awareness was sky high and that reusables were, at last, on the rise.

Step back

Crucial to the transition away from disposables is the assurance that reusables are safe, accessible, and easy to use. As the pandemic soared in early 2020 and the country moved into lockdown, reusables were suddenly once again off the menu for many. Driven by the (still questionable) assumption that the virus could spread through contact with everyday items, and with safety as their core priority, many companies such as Starbucks and Café Nero banned use of reusables in March 2020. Not only did cafes start refusing to accept reusable coffee cups, but ceramic cups were removed from cafes and deli counters closed down in supermarkets. The result was a staggering soar in the use of disposable items and consequently waste to landfill, or energy from waste, and littering of the environment.

Data brings reusables back on the agenda

New research released in June 2020 claimed that reusables are not actually the problem with virus transmission. Over 115 health experts from eighteen countries signed a statement released by UPSTREAM and Greenpeace USA which assures retailers and consumers that reusables are safe during Covid-19. These health experts emphasise that disposable products are not inherently safer than reusables and that reusable systems can be utilised safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene. Key aspects of the statement include:

  • It’s rare for the coronavirus to spread via surfaces. Available evidence indicates that the virus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolised droplets rather than through contact with surfaces.
  • Covid-19 can spread on single-use items just as easily as reusables. Disposables are therefore no safer than washed reusables as different people would still be touching the disposable item.
  • Reusable products can be easily cleaned to prevent Covid-19. Cleaning to standard food hygiene standards is adequate to ensure no trace of the virus remains on reusables.

According to the panel of experts, businesses should let customers use reusables.

So where does that leave us now?

Public Health England has not given its explicit backing for the use of reusables so current Government guidance states “It is up to the individual business to decide whether they allow the use of reusable cups or containers during this period”. With no definitive Government recommendation or enforcement either way, the decision firmly lies in the hands of individual restaurants, cafés and food retailers.

The best practices included in the statement from UPSTREAM and Greenpeace USA for using reusable products are:

  • To comply with the standard food safety / health codes including use and provision of hand sanitiser: with these in place, reusables are just as safe as disposable items. You’ll notice every café and shop will now provide hand sanitiser, in addition to guidance on social distancing.
  • Employ contact-free systems for customers’ personal bags and cups – such as the innovative contactless coffee system devised and promoted by City to Sea. From the beginning of August, Starbucks also released their own method for serving drinks with minimum contact via a video available on their website. This involves customers putting their reusable cup into a larger cup or tray for staff to handle, meaning the reusable cup never has to be handled by anyone other than the owner.
  • Train staff on accepting and handling reusable cups or bottles appropriately. Both Starbucks and Costa have made statements that their staff have been trained on accepting and handling reusables safely.

With these guidelines followed, reusable items like keep cups, water bottles or reusable takeaway containers can be just as safe as disposable packaging. We hope to see many other restaurants, bars and cafes continue to welcome customer use of personal reusables and enable individuals to play their part in reducing plastic pollution.

What next?

On a wider scale, a policy paper released in June 2020 from Zero Waste Europe states that:

The impact of Coronavirus has shown how unresilient our system is. Building a green and just economic recovery is critical to address environmental challenges but also to ensure resilience when global crises, like Covid-19, happen.”

We at Resource Futures are committed to continuing our work with local businesses and community groups to ensure that the use of reusable alternatives does regain momentum and remains key to the building of a circular economy in the UK.

If you are interested in working with us to enable your business, social enterprise or community to ditch disposables, then contact us via our website or through our social media pages. Until then, stay safe, stay sanitised and hold on to your keep cup.