Zero Waste Ambassador Blog: International Experts Agree: Reusables are COVID-19 Safe

International Experts Agree: Reusables are COVID-19 Safe

By Davida Halev, Senior in Emory College, Sociology Major and Sustainability Minor

In early 2020, restaurants were starting to see a shift away from disposable packaging. Last January, Starbucks implemented a Resource-Positive Future act which incentivized the use of reusable coffee cups. The restaurant chain Just Salad was delivering its 14th year of reusable salad bowl programming, saving over 75,000 pounds of plastic from landfills annually. Spotting plastic straws at local coffee shops became a rare sighting.

Then the pandemic shifted things. The Resource-Positive Future looked a bit less positive when Starbucks banned reusable coffee cups from its 30,000 stores. Just Salad was forced to immediately shut down their reusable salad programming. The era of the unknown caused a twofold increase in plastic usage for the restaurant industry.

Signs like these were posted in coffee shops and cafes nation-wide.

Granted, the foodservice industry is not often thought to be a pillar of sustainability. But with the onset of COVID-19, businesses that are struggling for customers’ dollars are scrambling to prove their sanitation and cleanliness. Correlations between single-use plastics and health standards are unsupported by the latest science. However, industry interests promote plastic use even further.

The good news? The latest science shows that reusable wares are not high risk for spreading the virus. In June, an international group of scientists and public health officials signed a statement acknowledging the safety of reusables during COVID-19. Citing specific evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signatories wrote that disposable plastics and reusable products present similar risks in spreading disease. Instead, consumers and food servicers must consciously disinfect surfaces, wash hands frequently, social distance, and wear a mask to resist the spread. As restaurants begin to open back up for outdoor dining, this will prove more plausible. 

“The plastic industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to try and convince people that single use plastic is necessary to keep us safe, and that reusables are dirty and dangerous,” said John Hocevar, the ocean campaign director at Greenpeace told CNBC. It’s true: in a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Plastics Industry Association urged the government body to publicly recognize the health and safety benefits of single-use plastics. 

During the pandemic, restaurants have taken an especially hard hit. Nearly 17% of all restaurants have closed permanently. The sole lifeline of many restaurants, especially smaller ones with limited seating, has been takeout and delivery orders. Coupled with health concerns over COVID-19, restaurants have seen a major increase in plastic use.

One Washington Post reporter saved all his takeout packaging from a period of 2 weeks, starting last March.

Emphasizing the role of disposable plastics may have caused other negative impacts apart from increasing the amount of plastics in our waste stream. “Exploitation of COVID-19 fears ultimately made people less safe,” Hocevar continued, “Distracting attention from the need to focus on the risk of airborne transmission and critical measures like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.” While the president of the Green Restaurant Association says it is still too early to tell, single-use plastic packaging has inevitably and significantly contributed to the rise of restaurants’ waste output. 

If you’re an eater 

As restaurants begin to open back up, ask for no utensils when you order carry out. Bring your own when you dine in. Other small-ticket items that add high plastic price tags: condiment packages, to go-bags, and beverages. Skip the bottle of water if you can – always bring your own.  

Supporting local eateries, especially your favorite restaurants, is important in these trying times. As restaurants begin to open their doors, opt away from takeout and to eat outside.   

If you’re a restaurant 

Ask your customers to opt in if they want utensils with their delivery orders. Not only can this save plastics, but it can save your business money. Just Salad reports 88% of customers saving utensil use, and saving money on their orders as well.

Consider your reusable uses. If you have the facilities to wash your reusables, employ them. They prove no higher risk than disposables. As the weather begins to warm and outdoor dining becomes available, offer this viable alternative to your customers. Consider conducting a plastic audit to see where your waste is coming from. 

If you’re an Emory student 

Bring your own utensils to Cox and the Dining Hall! The use of reusable cups on campus is still not permitted, however – this is to avoid the need for anyone else to touch your cup. 

Bring a reusable bag for your to-go food items. The reusable bags are not intended for anyone to touch but you when you pack your to-go food in them. Emory Dining provided these bags to students in response to concerns from students about the to-go waste produced during the fall semester.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused an upsurge in waste and disposables. But, with the latest scientific consensus, it’s clear these steps aren’t completely necessary. Though COVID-19 has caused many unknowns for the future of environmental sustainability, the latest science reveals a glimmer of hope for reusables.



Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

JustSalad. “2020 Environmental Sustainability Report.” JustSalad, 22 Feb. 2021,

Martin, Amy, et al. “Health Experts Agree That Reusable Coffee Cups Are Safe During COVID.” Food Tank, 1 Feb. 2021,,-Allison%20Reser&text=Many%20coffee%20shops%20in%20the,basic%20hygiene%20makes%20reusables%20safe.

Newburger, Emma. Plastic Waste Surges as Coronavirus Prompts Restaurants to Use More Disposable Packaging. CNBC, 28 June 2020,

Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Plastic Free Eateries.” PCC’s Easy Guide: Plastic-Free Eats,

Radoszewski, Tony. Plastics Industry Association Letter to US Department of Health and Human Services. Politico, 18 Mar. 2020,

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