Nearly 130 scientists, doctors and public health experts from 19 countries have signed a statement calling for a return of reusable cups in food and beverage retail establishments.
The letter is supported by the long-running environmental NGO Greenpeace, which is contending that the plastics and petrochemical industries are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and misleading consumers into thinking that single-use plastics are safer than reusable alternatives regarding transmission of the disease. Just yesterday, the business-to-business news site Plastics Today declared the COVID-19 era a renaissance for single-use plastics.
In the signed statement, the consortium of public health representatives noted that reuse and refill systems are an “essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy.”
“The COVID-19 global pandemic has triggered a discussion of how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis,” the consortium wrote. “Based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”
Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic in the United States, most coffee businesses opting to remain open also halted any reusable cup systems in order to minimize surface contact points between baristas and customers. It has been one of several ways in which sustainability in the food industry has experienced a hard pause since the pandemic took hold.
However, there is no evidence to this point that reusable cup systems are any higher risk than single-use systems regarding disease transmission, and there remains no evidence that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted through food.
“Plastic is indispensable in healthcare settings, and there are many reasons why plastic is the material of choice for personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect essential workers from COVID-19,” Greenpeace said in an announcement supporting the letter. “But there’s a big difference between PPE and packaging for food and other goods. Even so, the oil and plastics industry have been peddling myths in the media and to politicians in an attempt to make single-use plastic acceptable again.”
Executive director of the UK-based Foodservice Packaging Association Martin Kersh told Packaging News that he believed more evidence is needed before reusable materials in food-and-beverage establishments are deemed safe, describing the letter as a reflection of opinion rather than research.
As of this writing, the United States Centers for Disease Control states in its “considerations for restaurants and bars” that retailers should consider avoiding “use of food and beverage utensils and containers brought in by customers.” The U.S. Food And Drug Administration, meanwhile, currently does not note any potential extra threat posed by reusable bags, cups, cutlery or other reusable products.
For more information on reusable cups, Upstream has a helpful guide for foodservice operators.