On March 25, 2020, The Indisposable Podcast published its latest episode discussing the topic of reusable food packaging and resilience in times of the novel coronavirus. The episode features a discussion with Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, and Matt Prindiville, director of the non-governmental organization UPSTREAM. The episode focuses on reviewing the latest science behind the survival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces and how reusable packaging could play a role during the pandemic to protect public health and also contribute to saving businesses money and increasing their resilience in the future.

Muncke explains that the virus “has a long survival time on surfaces, and that’s important for us when we think about food packaging but also about other products and items that we bring into our houses.” A recent study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that the virus survives for up to two or three days on steel and plastic surfaces and one day on cardboard (FPF reported). “The key here really is that we need to be aware of [packaging] as a potential route for spreading [the virus] . . . and we need to take measures to deal with that.”

There is growing discussion by some stakeholders about a need to shift back to single-use packaging during the pandemic. This includes a letter reported to have been sent by the Plastics Industry Association to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting the government agency speak out against bans on single-use products as a public health risk. However, both panelists in the podcast argue this is not the case. On the contrary, this pandemic is a chance for reusable packaging to step up to meeting crucial needs while keeping waste to a minimum. Given that the virus appears to survive on cardboard and plastic surfaces for multiple days, Muncke said “regardless of whether [using] a disposable or reusable container, you need to clean it, you need to sanitize it.” Washing with water and soap, as is commonly done for reusable items, is sufficient in this regard. At the same time, single-use packaging may give a false sense of safety when in reality it could also be contaminated during its production, transport, or handling. Statements were also made by UPSTREAM and Greenpeace countering the justifications argued by the industry association.

For restaurants and takeaway shops skeptical of implementing an option with reusable containers, Muncke explained that a systematic method for cleaning and disinfection is all that is needed. To do this, the podcast panelists discussed that existing reuse systems could be further developed to either (i) support customers in either safely sanitizing their own reusable containers when they arrive at the shop (e.g. washing with soap and water) or (ii) create a process for stores and restaurants to be part of a common container reuse program where the businesses ensure that returned containers are all properly sanitized and ready for reuse by customers. This also provides the chance for innovation, Muncke said, such as through the use of reverse vending machines to conveniently collect dirty containers to prepare them for (and potentially automate) sanitation and reuse.

Prindiville discussed that local initiatives and online startups are already taking shape to offer such services, and he says that through many existing case studies “we know now that going reusable can actually save restaurants and food services money.” He argues that the current pandemic “is an opportunity for some of the businesses that are shut down to potentially re-tool in ways that can help save them money when they come back online.” This would also help increase the resilience of our society by simplifying and localizing supply chains, which this pandemic has shown are highly susceptible to being impacted by such global events.

In conclusion, Muncke emphasizes that stepping back in terms of the progress made in managing plastic pollution is not necessary. “Of course we need to fight this virus and we need to try and get back to life as normal as possible again, but the price of that shouldn’t be to create insane amounts of single-use packaging waste.” Rather, “as human society, we need to use our knowledge and be smart about developing solutions that don’t become tomorrow’s problems.”

Prindiville agrees. He says the slow-down occurring during this pandemic gives us “a chance to think about how to create better systems.” Reusable packaging systems “built on clean, sanitary dishwashing are the kind of services that we need to get us to the point where we are solving plastic pollution, protecting public health, and getting people what they want without all of the waste.”

More information related to SARS-CoV-2 and packaging is available on the Food Packaging Forum’s resources page.

Read more

The Indisposable Podcast (March 24, 2020). “Reuse, Resilience, and COVID-19.”

UPSTREAM (March 24, 2020). “Plastics Industry Exploits Coronavirus to Prop up Single-Use Plastics.”

Jordan Davidson (March 23, 2020). “Plastic Bag Bans Put on Hold Amid Coronavirus Fears.” EcoWatch

Steve Toloken (March 25, 2020). “Virus concerns churn fight over single-use plastics.” Plastics News

Karine Vann (March 25, 2020). “COVID-19 puts BYO coffee cups on hold, but sanitized reusable systems could fill the void.” Waste Dive

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