The reusable mug – a small act of defiance in a disposable culture. But what was once the hero in our hands in the fight against single-use plastics, has become an object of suspicion – an unexpected victim of COVID-19’s collateral damage.
COVID-19 has triggered a rise in single-use packaging and a preference for plastics. Reusable habits that were once considered environmentally friendly in their ability to reduce landfill waste, and protect resources from manufacturing and shipping, now invoke a germaphobe fear response.
After Starbucks announced they would be pausing the use of personal reusable cups in UK stores in order to control the spread of COVID-19, the term ‘reusable’ instantaneously became synonymous with bad hygiene. The pause on reusable cups was carried out without issue from the government, and the rest of the sector subsequently followed suit in order to appear responsible. The response went hand in hand with the suspension of plastic bag taxes and return schemes, closures of restaurants (who now operate serving takeaways packaged in single use plastic) and the ban of reusable bags in some stores. Almost overnight, the aura of cleanliness associated with new single use items was embraced without question.
Tom Szaky founder of Terracycle, a pioneer and leader in recycling typically hard to recycle waste, has responded to the new redundancy of reusables with a reinforcement of the fact that single-use plastic is not sterile. In an interview with Grist, he stated that “no disposable packaging is sterile”. Szaky went on to detail that unless single-use plastic packaging is explicitly marked as ‘sterile’ – a rare occurrence outside the medical market – then it comes with no guarantees against contamination during the process of production and shipping.
We know that plastic entered civilian life in the 1950s, but it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment at which its affiliation with being sanitary grew. The action of disposability brought an immense convenience for most; if something was soiled it could be thrown away in leu of cleaning and so people misinterpreted the idea that wrapping things in plastic made them sanitary. This misconception lead to a huge rise in the consumption of single-use materials and the subsequent devastation of marine habitats. The National Geographic confirms that 80 million tonnes of plastic waste currently escape into the oceans each year, threatening nearly 700 species, many of which are endangered.
In March the Office of National Statistics made the decision to add reusable bottles and mugs to the inflation basket for the first time, indicating an increase in the amount of people switching from single-use to multi-use. Finally a transition towards a circular economy, with the natural world in mind, was in sight. These newfound anxieties around cleanliness however, pose a threat to the progress made by scientists and environmentalists, who are now faced with the unenviable task of realigning society’s mindset once again after the pandemic has passed.
Objectively, the natural world is breathing better in the grips of the pandemic. Air quality has improved exponentially; we’re living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded due to the shutdown of heavy industries, the reduction of cars on the road and the near elimination of planes in the sky. Ironically though, this period of green slumber will be short-lived, and the world will eventually have to wake up to an even bigger catastrophe caused by favouring a single-use mentality. As industries enter an intense period of overdrive in order to restart the global economy, a sharp spike in emissions is highly likely. We are not out of the woods just yet, in fact environmentalists are almost unable to see a solution to the over-packaging and non-recyclable PPE supplies needed for the treatment of COVID-19.
How and why we should revive the reusable?
Fear-driven habits develop under stress, often sticking for long periods of time, even after the original source of stress has dissipated. Therefore, as a society we must find ways to remove the stigmatisation attached to reusables once again. We must facilitate a significant paradigm shift in human behaviour where plastic is deemed as a precious resource and not throwaway consumable.
Public education is essential in supporting this recognition. The message that detergent and water will destroy the virus on second-hand clothing and on reusable containers when washed between uses must be advertised widely. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas medical branch confirms how “using anything between 60 and 70 percent ethanol will destroy the virus in less than 60 seconds on a reusable” and that he “wouldn’t expect any virus to survive a dishwasher”. With disposables we are unable to trace who has touched them and whether they are healthy or not before they have come into our possession, however we are able to track the movements and contents of our own reusables much more easily. The best way to avoid getting COVID-19 from any object, single-use or reusable, is to not touch your eyes nose or mouth after you use it. If facts such as these are effectively communicated through media, then people will feel more comfortable to make the behavioural shift back to reusables; ignorance isn’t always bliss.
Initiatives such as that found at Terracycle will also be fundamental in facilitating the shift. This organisation delivers products in durable containers that can be left at a drop off location for return once the product is finished, they are then sterilized and reused. The inclusion of investments into schemes such as this, should be a vital part of the post coronavirus recovery plans in order to prevent increased plastic waste generated by the lockdown.
The process of recovery goes hand in hand with the return of the hero in your hand – the reusable mug. A radio jingle created by Hubbub provides a great example of a behavioural nudge that could be a useful tool in resuscitating sustainable life choices post COVID-19. Hubbub aired their ear-wormy jingle in a campaign pioneered on streaming platforms targeted at catching listeners first thing in the morning as part of a ‘Grab Your Cup’ initiative. The nudge reminded the public to grab their reusable cup before heading out for the day, and its fun and positive qualities helped iron out any anxieties around this behaviour. Campaigns such as this will be central to reversing sustainable behaviours back to their pre pandemic glory.
The pandemic has given the single-use plastics industry time to relish in its recent growth, therefore it is important that we use the lockdown to “think slow” as Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman says, and take responsibility for our choices. Once the lockdown lifts it will be essential that those educators, entrepreneurs and campaigners championing reusables, rally quickly in order to resuscitate the revolution that they’ve been raising in its slumber. We have stayed at home, we have protected our NHS, we have saved lives and now it’s time to protect our environment.