Covid-19 Fears Shouldn’t Trash Your Zero Waste Efforts

For Béa Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home, one of the founding texts of the zero waste movement, the hygienic uncertainty in the supply chain is one reason she prefers a reusable water canteen to disposable water bottles. “With disposables, you have no idea who has touched it. With your own reusables, you do!” she wrote in an email to Grist. “Being afraid of reusables is as ridiculous as being afraid of Corona beer,” Johnson added.

So why do we tend to think of plastic packaging as being sanitary when it’s not? Szaky traces that idea to the 1950s, when the oil industry first introduced disposable plastic packaging and goods. “Disposability brought about unparalleled affordability and convenience. Moving from a plate you had to wash—probably by hand, because there weren’t even dishwashers then—to a disposable plate you could throw away was massively liberating and also very cheap,” Szaky told Grist. “And I think what ended up happening is people got this misperception that wrapping something in plastic also made it more sanitary.”

Loop’s circular model is aimed at doing away with the stereotype that packaging has to be disposable to be sanitary. Szaky emphasized that the process of rewashing Loop’s reusable packaging is “at the most sophisticated level washing can be.” The cleaning facility “looks like a silicon wafer factory,” he told Grist.

But Vineet Menachery, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, says that level of sophistication isn’t necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Depending on temperature and humidity, coronaviruses can survive on hard surfaces like steel or plastic for two to nine days—but only if you don’t do anything to stop them. “Relatively minor cleaning will actually dissolve or destroy the virus, and so if you use anything with between 60 and 70 percent ethanol, the virus will be destroyed in less than 60 seconds,” Menachery told Grist.

When it comes to reusable cups, mugs, and plates, plain old soap and water does the trick. “If you’re regularly cleaning stuff, you should be fine,” Menachery said. “My house, we have three kids, so we’re running the dishwasher all the time. I wouldn’t expect any virus to survive a dishwasher.”

As for secondhand or shared clothing—or cloth napkins—Menachery said people are unlikely to get Covid-19 from fabric because “if the surfaces absorb, it’s harder to transmit the virus.” But again, washing fabric with detergent and water will destroy the coronavirus.

I asked Menachery about the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 from a shared or secondhand object like a library book or a secondhand appliance from Craigslist. “A Clorox wipe or something like that would definitely dissolve the virus,” he said, though he added that those products might be hard to find right now. As for reusable shopping bags, Menachery said he’d used one himself at the grocery store recently. “I’d be less worried about my shopping and more worried about maybe the touch screen when you’re punching in your codes for the ATM or whatever,” he said.

In other words: Buying new rather than secondhand won’t protect you from Covid-19. You’re more likely to get coronavirus buying something new that got coughed on by the last person to walk down the aisle than from a secondhand item that’s been washed with soap and water or wiped down with sanitizing wipes.

The bottom line, Menachery said, is that the best way to avoid getting Covid-19 from an inanimate object—whether it’s new or used—is not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after you touch it. “The inanimate object could be coated,” he said. “And as long as you don’t bring it to the mucosal surface, it’s hard to get infected that way.”

Regardless of how long the coronavirus epidemic lasts, the problems of environmental degradation, climate change, and plastic pollution will still be with us when it ends. So Szaky says, don’t take coronavirus as a sign you need to give up your vintage clothing habit or avoid shopping at a package-free store. “That’s really important for the environment to do, and we shouldn’t suddenly forsake that because of all the fear around this particular issue,” said Szaky.


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