On March 17, 2020, the non-governmental organization UPSTREAM published a letter discussing single-use and reusable food packaging as it relates to the spread of the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). The organization set out to answer a range of questions being asked by consumers including whether or not reusable packaging is safe, if disposable packaging is safer, and how the spread of SARS-CoV-19 could impact the expanding trend towards zero-waste lifestyles and bring-your-own container shopping options. UPSTREAM writes that reusable food containers are safe given the proper use of washing with soap and hot water to kill the virus, preferably through the use of home and commercial dishwashers. Because it is not possible to know who has touched single-use packaging products before they are purchased, the virus can likely be spread via the surfaces of the packaging. A recent study has found that the virus can persist on plastic and stainless steel for two to three days (FPF reported). The organization encourages the continued use of reusable water bottles and recommends refilling them outside the home through a hands-free refilling station and avoiding contact with the water spout itself.

The letter addresses that large coffee retailers such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have recently announced that they are no longer permitting customers to bring their own refillable containers in their stores. “The coronavirus crisis is showing us that we don’t have the systems we need for reusable to-go, take-out, and food delivery. Because of this, there is likely to be an explosion of single-use products as restaurants scramble to shift to food delivery to survive, and people shift to dining at home instead of eating out.” However, UPSTREAM reminds readers that plastic pollution will remain a significant environmental issue once the pandemic is over and the progress made towards a zero-waste lifestyle and reusable packaging will continue. There are businesses that have “already developed reusable to-go services for take-out and food delivery” and “provide clean, sanitized reusable cups and to-go containers.” This crisis is showing that society would greatly benefit from the expansion of such models, especially if similar outbreaks occur again in the future, which is reasonable to assume based on this analysis. UPSTREAM concluded that “while the coronavirus will change many things in our lives for a time, it won’t change our core values like working for healthy people, a healthy planet and a sustainable economy.”

An article published by online magazine Grist on March 11, 2020 also reviewed public perceptions towards reusable packaging regarding the virus and discussed the issue with packaging and public health professionals. The conclusion: “Buying new rather than secondhand won’t protect you from COVID-19.”

Importantly, finding solutions to preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 must not compromise efforts to mitigate climate change, stop plastic pollution, and reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals. More information related to SARS-CoV-2 and packaging is available on the Food Packaging Forum’s resources page.

Read more

UPSTREAM (March 17, 2020). “Plastic pollution, reuse and COVID-19.”

L.V. Anderson (March 11, 2020). “Can the zero-waste movement survive the coronavirus?

T. Homer-Dixon (March 11, 2020). “Coronavirus will change the world. It might also lead to a better future.The Globe and Mail

L.V. Anderson (March 14, 2020). “Covid-19 Fears Shouldn’t Trash Your Zero Waste Efforts.” Wired