Many coffee shops in the United States and around the globe no longer make drinks in reusable containers brought in by customers because of COVID-19, but research shows that basic hygiene makes reusables safe.
When asked if it is safe for coffee shops to make beverages in customers’ reusable cups, Dr. John Nwangwu, Professor of Epidemiology & Global Health and Consultant to the World Health Organization, told Food Tank simply, “Yes. It is safe.”
Both customers and coffee shops, Nwangwu says, must take responsibility for good hygienic practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These practices include disinfecting surfaces, washing hands often, covering their mouth and nose with a mask, and avoiding close contact with other people.
Before COVID-19, many coffee shops around the world encouraged customers to bring in reusable beverage containers to reduce waste. For example, in January 2020, Starbucks committed to a Resource-Positive Future and incentivized the use of reusable mugs by offering a discount.
But many coffee shops, including Starbucks—which has over 30,000 locations worldwide—have suspended the use of personal cups as a result of COVID-19. There are no official bans on reusable containers from health agencies, so coffee shops are making this decision on their own.
Many environmental groups including Greenpeace, FoodPrint, UPSTREAM, and Oceanic Global, are urging businesses to stop the ban on reusable coffee cups and limit single-use items. They cite scientific evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization that shows reusable containers are low-risk for spreading COVID-19. In June 2020 over 125 public health experts, including Nwangwu, signed a statement detailing how to use reusable products safely during COVID-19.
“I see global [plastic] pollution as a frightening health issue,” Nwangwu tells Food Tank. He believes that reducing the spread of COVID-19 is a priority, but plastic pollution and material waste also pose an ominous and ongoing risk to public health.
According to Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, Americans use 120 billion disposable coffee cups each year. Due to the inner plastic coating, most of these coffee cups are not recyclable and end up in landfills. The Plastic Pollution Coalition states that plastic never goes away, which means this waste releases toxins into the soil and water, contributes to climate change, and threatens wildlife.
The plastic industry has taken advantage of the pandemic to claim that single-use plastic products are safer. In a letter, The Plastics Industry Association urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to acknowledge the public health and safety benefits of disposable plastics.
But some coffee shops are making drinks in reusable cups from customers during the pandemic safely by following sanitation protocols. Zero Waste NYC Workshop has a crowd-sourced tracker listing coffee shops in New York City accepting reusable mugs. Nwangwu suspects that these businesses are doing so because reducing waste and protecting natural resources is important to the owners and managers.
“Waste is waste. The more we can limit waste, the better,” Nwangwu tells Food Tank, “We all want a better world to live in.
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