Bay can still lead the way on plastic pollution while protecting public health

The Bay Area is home to some of the most innovative people and companies on the planet. In addition to being where big ideas and technology meet, it’s also led the world in addressing plastic pollution and achieving zero waste.

But a recent decision by Bay Area Health Departments to temporarily suspend reusable bags due to coronavirus concerns moves us in the opposite direction. While we applaud their efforts to ensure our safety, preventing citizens from using reusable bags doesn’t actually make us any safer.

Because coronavirus can be harbored on various materials - purses, wallets, credit cards, and money also have the potential to house the virus. Not to mention all the products that could be handled by someone with COVID-19 and then placed on the checkout counter. According to the National Institutes of Health, plastic was shown to harbor the virus for up to three days.

Practicing good hygiene is more realistic than prohibiting every item that could be handed to a cashier or brought to the counter. The best protection is to wash your hands and bags, and have stores regularly clean checkout areas. With your reusable bag, you know who touched it and you can wash or sanitize it to protect yourself and others.

Unfortunately, the action to temporarily restrict reusable bags plays into the plastics industry’s attempts to exploit people’s fears to roll back plastic bag bans using junk science. They’ve renewed attacks on reusable bags using a 2011 study - which they funded - that revealed bacteria levels (not viruses) in shoppers’ reusable bags (but not on the outside of them). Consumer Reports’ food safety experts responded that eating pre-bagged salad would cause more exposure to these bacteria than licking the inside of the dirtiest bag from this study.

In 2007, San Francisco led the world and became the first major city to ban plastic bags. Policymakers acted because of the clear evidence of harm to the environment and wildlife. And today, nearly two thirds of the world’s population lives where single-use bags are banned or now cost money. In places that have banned or put charges on plastic bags, there’s been a 70% to 90% reduction in bag litter.

This action by our city also paved the way to rethink how to deliver products and services in ways that don’t generate waste in the first place. The Bay Area is home to the groundbreaking ReThink Disposable project, which has worked with more than 160 restaurants and food service establishments. This service has helped these businesses transition away from single-use disposable products to reusable ones. More importantly, every single business that’s made the switch has saved money.  

Last year, Berkeley became the first city in the world to pass a reusable foodware ordinance that makes it so when you sit down to eat - you will be served on real plates, with real cups and cutlery. Versions of the ordinance have now been passed in 7 cities on the West Coast with a combined population of more than 1.2 million people, and places like Los Angeles and New York City are lining up to do the same.

The ordinance also helps pave the way for innovative new businesses to provide reusable cup services. Imagine walking into a coffee shop, but then realizing you forgot your reusable mug for takeaway. Now imagine you could rent a sanitized reusable to-go cup and trade it out for a clean one at any cafe in the Bay Area.

The good news is that this is already happening. In Berkeley, the company VesselWorks has set up a reusable to-go cup service for coffee shops around the university. In February, Muuse began piloting its reusable cup service in downtown San Francisco, and Cup Club started in Palo Alto.

Similarly, the Bay Area has also been home to entrepreneurs developing innovative services to deliver takeout food in reusable clean and safe containers. Imagine if right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had reusable food delivery systems. Reuse service companies would provide restaurants with clean, sanitized, reusable containers for takeout food. They then would collect dirty containers from delivery services, sanitize them in commercial dishwashers and put them back into service.

Here again, the Bay leads the way. Companies like Dispatch Goods and Green Tiffin are working to change takeout and food delivery from a disposable paradigm to a reusable one. In addition to saving money, what’s especially exciting about these businesses is they employ local people and build regional supply chains that won’t be disrupted by a crisis.

We know our restaurants and food service businesses have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus. The Bay can continue to lead the way by supporting innovative ideas to put our people back to work, save businesses money, protect public health, and stop plastic pollution at the same time.


For media inquiries, contact: Vanessa Tiongson, UPSTREAM Marketing and Communications Director, vanessa@upstreamsolutions.org