New report sheds light on the safe use of reusable items during the COVID-19 pandemic
New research from the National Zero Waste Council, in collaboration with the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, sheds light on the safe use of reusable items in retail settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, items like refillable mugs and reusable shopping bags were becoming ubiquitous, in line with growing public concerns about single-use items and the negative impacts of plastic waste on marine ecosystems," said Jack Froese, Chair of the National Zero Waste Council. "While the pandemic has slowed down the progress on reusables, we now know that there are many opportunities to recover the momentum without compromising public safety."
As part of the national response to COVID-19, public health authorities across Canada issued precautionary guidelines and directives for retail establishments to limit viral transmission risk. The specific guidelines varied widely between jurisdictions and many retailers adopted even more cautious policies.
This response, coupled with the fact that the science around viral surface transmission is still emerging, contributed to uncertainty around the safety of reusable options and noticeably diminished the presence of reusable bags, containers and utensils in retail settings — particularly in the early months of the pandemic.
The National Zero Waste Council sought to better understand the risk of reusables during the pandemic, as well as the long-term implications for their viability in retail settings. The council approached the research team from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health for its expertise in epidemiology, environmental and occupational health, public health policy and waste studies.
The resulting report, Opportunities for Reusables in Retail Settings During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada: A Review of Guidance and Evidence, includes:
- A summary of Canadian public health authorities' guidance with respect to the use of reusables
- A review of current scientific evidence, available as of January 2021, regarding the transmission of COVID-19 via contaminated surfaces
- An examination of changes in consumer and retailer behaviours with respect to reusable items
The research team concluded that as long as precautions remain in place, reusable items may be used in retail settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The science shows us that items such as reusable bags, containers and cutlery do not pose any higher risk of virus transmission in retail settings than disposable items, as long as appropriate safety precautions are in place," said Pete Fry, Chair of the National Zero Waste Council's Product Design and Packaging Working Group. "This research will be welcomed by the many local governments that are working to reduce waste, and looking for a science-based understanding of the risks of using reusables during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to establish best practices for retailers and consumers in their communities."
Transitioning to reuse-based products and services presents significant opportunities. According to the council's 2021 report, Waste Prevention: The Environmental and Economic Benefits for Canada, replacing 20 percent of single use packaging with reusable packaging could prevent more than 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste in Canada per year, representing a $773-million economic opportunity.