Is Zero-Waste Possible During a Pandemic?

The Environmentalist From Hell ponders the newly bright future of single-use items.

A little free library: a small, house-shaped box usually full of books. A sign on its door says it’s closed due to Covid-19.
Photo by Erin Flegg

Covid-19 has scared many people out of their zero-waste habits. But the science says we don’t need to give up on reusable items and sharing-economy joys like Little Free Libraries.

I hate single-use items. I despise disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles, to-go containers, and throwaway cleaning products. But yikes, this pandemic has me throwing out everything I touch like everyone else. I now use tissues to open doors, then toss them. I’m hoarding Lysol wipes like they’re gold. When I think about going out, I ask, “Is this trip wipe-worthy?” like Elaine from Seinfeld requiring her boyfriend to prove he was contraceptive “sponge-worthy.

Single-use items have made a comeback since the pandemic was declared. New York State postponed enforcement of its long-planned plastic bag ban from April 1 to May 15. The US Department of Homeland Security declared producers of plastic and other single-use packaging “essential critical infrastructure.” Uggghhh! This all hurts my environmentalist heart like plastic straws hurt the noses of sea turtles.

Single-use items making a comeback hurts my heart like plastic straws hurt the noses of sea turtles.

Especially because on May 22 the US Centers for Disease Control clarified that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it… but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Now, of course we all want to be as safe as possible; I’m not suggesting people stop being careful. But it does seem like we could safely get back to some zero-waste habits.

I hoped I was done writing about single-use items, but this pandemic’s got me back on that hobby horse. How can we create less garbage and still keep ourselves safe? Here are some thoughts:

Coffee Cups

Oh, how I miss sitting at a little table, drinking from a ceramic mug, and watching the world go by. Honestly, I haven’t had coffee in months, because self-isolation intensified my insomnia, and I figure the last thing I need is a habit that keeps me awake.

What I’ve heard from friends who are going to coffee shops is they’re not allowed to bring their own cups. Disposable is the rule. Of course we don’t want staff getting infected, but here’s a thought: could they pour a drink into one of the store’s ceramic mugs, and then have the customer transfer it into their reusable mug? Could we do that?

Grocery Bags

If grocery clerks — who are already underpaid and overwhelmed right now — don’t want to touch our reusable bags, couldn’t we just bag our own groceries? After you’d bagged your purchase, staff would only have to wipe down the counter as they’re already doing.

I wonder if people even thought reusable bags were an issue before Big Plastic got involved. The American Plastics Industry Association (PIA) wrote a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services asking them to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics… [and to] speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk.” Ok, but where’s the evidence of this risk, Big Plastic?

Miriam Gordon from Upstream Solutions — a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic pollution — wrote a blog post about the letter, noting that it’s full of misinformation. The letter references a study funded by a trade association for chemical companies, which found reusable bags contain high levels of bacteria because users don’t wash them frequently. But Gordon points out the study “didn’t state that there were any health-related threats posed by the types and levels of bacteria in the reusable bags.”

The current coronavirus only remains viable on plastic for up to three days, and the amounts of viable virus go down dramatically even earlier.

Some think since many people don’t wash their reusable bags, they could be bringing virus into stores with them. But a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the current coronavirus only remains viable on stainless steel and plastic for up to three days, and on cardboard for one day (and the amounts of viable virus go down dramatically even earlier). So if we’re getting groceries weekly, any virus from the last time you were out wouldn’t be on a reusable plastic bag anymore. Because if you have the virus yourself, you’re staying home, right? RIGHT?!?

What about cloth bags? I wasn’t able to find anything about them specifically, but clothing is a good equivalent. Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease physician and chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital, told Global News that clothes aren’t super risky: “I don’t think the clothing you’re walking around with on a regular basis is going to be a big cause of concern.”


If you’re getting takeout from restaurants, hopefully you’re supporting a local business that uses compostable containers, or plastics you can reuse at home or recycle. It’s important to support these small businesses, which are suffering so much already. But, if you can, give that boost to those who are working to keep things sustainable.

Bulk Food Shopping

What if you’re a superstar who doesn’t buy packaged goods and shops at a bring-your-own container store? How can you shop without transmitting the virus? Two zero-waste grocers here in Vancouver, BC — Nada and the Soap Dispensary — have introduced online ordering, with staffers packaging goods up in paper bags and jars you can return for a deposit. Hopefully your local bulk store is doing something equivalent. If not, why not share these strategies with them so you can get back to your lower-waste ways?


Ok, I know books aren’t single-use items. But some people seem to think they should be. There are Little Free Libraries all over my neighbourhood — large birdhouse-like structures filled with books passers-by are encouraged to take home — and they’ve been shuttered to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They don’t need to be!

Scientists are not concerned at all about paper-based materials like books being a transmission route.

Dr. David Berendes from the US Centers for Disease Control made a presentation to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and stated: “We are not concerned at all about paper-based materials like books being a transmission route.” Hallelujah!!! If you manage a Little Free Library, here’s some information about how to keep it safe.

Masks and Gloves

I’m grateful that during summer 2019’s awful forest fire season I bought two N99 masks, which filter out even more particles than N95s. These are reusable and can be cleaned. I wear them whenever I go into any store, for everyone’s safety. Of course, the cloth masks people are making are not N95-classified, but they still help slow the spread of the virus. And the good news is, they’re washable and reusable! If you snag one in a cute print, they’re fashionable, too.

Gloves are controversial. Reusable cloth gloves don’t offer good protection and plastic gloves won’t protect you if you touch your face with them. Instead of making plastic waste, just wash your hands — or use hand sanitizer if soap and water isn’t available — and refrain from touching your face with unclean hands.

The upside to the pandemic is we’re making less garbage and pollution these days. Thankfully, polluting industries like air travel, cruise ships, and oil and gas have massively slowed down. Let’s use the extra time on our hands to write to our governments about demanding more environmentally sound practices from those industries, and not providing them with the no-strings-attached bailouts they’re hoping for.

We can still maintain our zero-waste values, by supporting stores and organizations taking a stand against disposable culture. And I hope you’re able to enjoy the slower pace of life. Take your reusable items to a park and have a picnic at an appropriate distance from others. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And as BC’s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, says: “Be calm. Be kind. Be safe.”

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