Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Rethinking Reusable Containers and Packaging Waste

My reusable Starbucks cups sit in a cabinet in my kitchen, gathering dust. Yes, I could go to a drive-through at Starbucks and show the barista one of the containers to save ten cents on the cost of a latte. The barista would then hand me my drink in a disposable cup. But I see no point in flashing my decorative cup. My habit of bringing reusable containers has nothing to do with the discount.

Reusable containers of all sorts are now forbidden because of the risk of contamination. The zero-waste community is upset, lamenting that we’ve taken several steps backward in the effort to get rid of disposable packaging. We hope that it is only temporary and that we will once again be able to bring our stainless steel cups to coffee shops and our canvas tote bags to grocery stores.

Meanwhile, trips to buy groceries are surreal. I finally ventured out a couple of days ago on my first in-person trip in almost a month. The last time I got groceries, I tried online ordering and parking lot pickup. After booking a time slot a week out and adding to my online shopping cart as I remembered more items I needed, I drove to pick up my groceries at the appointed hour. Several things were out of stock, including one of my son’s staples, his favorite brand of peanut butter. After that experience, I decided to pick out my own groceries.

Like most of the shoppers at PCC (a Seattle-area natural food co-op), I wore a mask. I’m proud to say that my homemade mask is a stellar example of creative reuse. It is blue and green, made from cotton fabrics that had been languishing in a box in a closet. I found elastic bands at home that were initially part of hang tags for the yoga pants I bought last year. The sewn-in nose piece is a segment of insulated wire scavenged from my garage.
Seeing almost everyone in masks of various styles was strange enough. Signs in the produce department told shoppers to bag items in store-provided disposable bags only, an about-face for a store that usually promotes reusables and serves a clientele that embraces the concept. In the frozen food aisle, signs said to take no more than two any specific item. Then I approached the bulk aisle. The bins that store flour, rice, oats, and other staples were gone. An employee wearing heavy-duty gloves was scrubbing down the empty shelves.

On a positive note, I was able to get almost everything on my list. When I got home, my son even accepted the unfamiliar brand of peanut butter. But, overall, my trip to PCC left me feeling uncomfortable and anxious. Going out into the community feels so alien now.

Public health and the environment are usually positively correlated. For the most part, actions that reduce pollution or greenhouse gas emissions help the health of both people and nature. Even when considering the spread of disease, controlling climate change saves lives. 

But disposable packaging is more complicated. If we decrease the use of disposables, we remove the environmental impact of producing materials that are used for a short time and then discarded. We reduce the risk that disposable packaging will contaminate our waterways. But even before the current pandemic, many people were concerned that it was unsanitary to bring containers from home into stores and restaurants. While some establishments welcomed reusables and would happily tare (weigh) customers’ containers so they could fill them from bulk bins, others said that the Department of Public Health prohibited the practice.

A short-term increase in disposables isn’t an environmental disaster. Stepping back and looking at the big picture, the reduction in carbon footprint from curtailing travel has to be much higher than the carbon footprint of producing more disposable paper and plastic. Roads are empty, and skies are clearer than they have been in decades. I haven’t charged my electric car in a month, which means that many other drivers probably haven’t been to a gas station in at least as long.

I trust that things will eventually return to a new normal. My vision includes a world in which people will consider how many car trips are essential and embrace reusable containers. But I understand that disposables aren’t going to disappear overnight, which is why I find the following news encouraging. It so happens that Starbucks has announced a trial of cups that are both recyclable and compostable. The company began test marketing the cups in March. I’m eager to see what happens. In the plastics chapter of Material Value, I comment that the ideal plastic would be both recyclable and compostable but express doubt that such a material would come to pass.

Many people have upgraded their hygiene practices in the past month, from thorough handwashing to frequent sanitizing of surfaces in their homes. I hope that these new practices, plus data showing that viruses live longer on plastic than on paper or fabric, will encourage businesses to reinstate the acceptance of reusable packaging. For now, we need to follow the rules and be patient. We will eventually be able to safely go out and fill our reusable tote bags, jars, and coffee cups.