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We can navigate COVID-19 without resorting to disposables

We can navigate COVID-19 without resorting to disposable coffee cups, but we should build more resilient reuse systems too, say zero waste campaigners

Some cafes across New Zealand have started rejecting customers’ reusable cups for takeaway coffee as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Zero waste advocates are concerned that such moves could undo recent advances in the uptake of BYO reusables to prevent single-use waste.

New Zealanders churn through 295 million disposable cups a year, with most ending up in landfill and a percentage escaping waste collection systems to pollute the environment.

But is this a hit our environment might need to take in the face of what the World Health Organization has now declared a pandemic?

Members of the recently-launched Takeaway Throwaways campaign say that even with COVID-19-induced restrictions on customer-provided reusable cups, New Zealand coffee drinkers can still find ways to avoid disposable cups without compromising public health.

Launched in February 2020, Takeaway Throwaways calls on the New Zealand Government to ban single-use disposable food and drink serviceware containing plastic, and to mandate accessible, reusable alternatives at scale. The campaign includes a petition and a wide range of resources to support individuals, businesses, events and festivals to transition towards reusables.

“Given that COVID-19 is transmitted via respiratory droplets, we recognise that customer-provided reusable cups could be seen to pose potential cross-contamination risk, as cafes cannot guarantee that customers have cleaned their cup between uses. Cafes, restaurants and outlets are within their rights to reject reusables” says Takeaway Throwaways co-founder Laura Cope.

“Regardless, for those of us not in self-isolation, it remains totally possible to get our barista coffee fix without having to accept a disposable cup.”

Takeaway Throwaways’ policy representative, Hannah Blumhardt, says that fear surrounding potential cross-contamination from BYO reusables highlights the value of established and scaleable reuse systems for takeaway food and drink serviceware—something that the Takeaway Throwaways campaign has been calling for—such as cup lending schemes.

“Our campaign asks the Government to use powers it has under existing legislation to co-design scaleable and accessible reuse schemes for takeaway packaging, and then require all hospitality outlets to participate. The COVID-19 outbreak clearly shows why this would be a good idea, if we are committed to reducing single-use plastic waste in the long-term”, she says.

“These schemes can be designed to operate across hospitality outlets, with sterilisation built into the system infrastructure, making them resilient in health and civil emergency situations.”

“Furthermore, for some people with medical conditions that compromise their immune systems, the need for sterile serviceware is a daily consideration, even without a global pandemic. The Takeaway Throwaways campaign has always emphasised how scaleable reuse systems must be accessible for everyone, which includes stringent hygiene considerations.”

The Government has not yet heeded the campaign’s request to begin designing wide-scale reuse systems. In the meantime, how can you continue to support local cafes and order a barista coffee without the rubbish?

Takeaway Throwaways offers suggestions, while noting that the COVID-19 situation is constantly changing and that these suggestions are based on the New Zealand situation as of 16 March 2020. The public should continue following the Ministry of Health advice and website for any further official updates that may have an impact on the position in relation to reusable serviceware:

1) Many cafes are still accepting reusable cups; if you go to these outlets with your own reusables, ensure you have washed them thoroughly with soap and hot water between each use (as you should be doing anyway!)

2) If you become symptomatic, do not use reusable takeaway cups. In fact, don’t go out to get coffee at all. In the words of Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, at the 11 March 2020 Ministry of Health COVID-19 update: “you shouldn’t be going out with your Keep Cup if you’re symptomatic... If you’ve got your Keep Cup and you’re going out for a coffee then we’ll assume you’re well… If you’re not well, you’re not going to be using your Keep Cup because you’ll be at home.”

3) If you find yourself at a café that has temporarily stopped accepting customers’ reusable cups (which they are within their rights to do—don’t argue), simply order your coffee to "have here", sit down, and drink the coffee out of the cafe's in-house ceramic mug.

4) If the coffee vendor you’re at uses disposables only and won't accept your reusable cup, get your coffee somewhere else that does use in-house washable ceramic cups.

5) If you can’t take a moment to sit down and you really want to takeaway, choose a cafe that uses a cup lending system where the cups are sterilised between uses (such as Again Again or Cupcycling). Or else order your coffee to “have here” and when it arrives, pour it into your own reusable cup.

6) If you find yourself in a situation where there is literally nowhere where 3), 4) or 5) is an option, consider going without a barista coffee. You can also make yourself a brew at home.

Ultimately, the environmental impact of single-use disposable serviceware has not changed. Whichever way you choose to reuse while navigating New Zealand’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, let it be done in kindness and care for the health of both the planet and the people around you.

Check the Takeaway Throwaways website for more information about the campaign and alternatives to single-use disposable food and drink serviceware. To sign the petition to call on the Government to begin designing and implementing scaleable reuse schemes for serviceware, click here.


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