Why coronavirus does not mean the end of zero waste

You may have heard stories or even seen local businesses in your area make the decision to ban reusable coffee cups, or reusable containers. I first heard about this when Starbucks made the decision at the beginning of March to not only refuse reusable coffee cups but also switch all dine-in reusables (cups, plates, cutlery) to single-use disposables.

(Although interestingly they will – at the time of writing – still accept your pre-handled money, unlike other stores which are now also banning cash and allowing only contactless payments).

Around the same time I heard that Bulk Barn, the largest bulk foods store in Canada, is no longer allowing single-use containers. Now, more and more places are announcing similar policies. And I started seeing people ask – is this the end of zero waste?

No, coronavirus is not the end of zero waste. Here’s why.

Coronavirus and the rise of single-use disposables

Before I even begin, I want to emphasise that we are in a unprecedented situation, and it is hard for any business owner to know how to react or what to do to reduce the spread of disease and keep their business running. I think many stores want to do ‘something’ and without clear guidelines as to what this might be – other than shutting doors, which isn’t an easy business decision even if it’s great to prevent the spread of disease – they are trying to take action however they can.

So we might have our opinions on what is inconsistent and what is overreacting and what is sensible and what is necessary. But they are just our opinions, and even the experts are in unchartered territory right now.

Something I read at the weekend that really stuck with me was this: “When you’re dealing with exponential growth [which is what experts are saying we have with infection rates] the time to act is when it seems too early.”

So let’s save our judgement, because we really don’t know.

But what I know to be true – whether we see more and more businesses switching to single-use disposables over reusables because of coronavirus, and even if those businesses decide to keep policies in place after the threat has passed (assuming that it does), is that it doesn’t spell the end of zero waste.

As so often happens in the media, it is being framed all wrong.

Coronavirus can’t touch what zero waste really is

We could have a conversation about what ‘waste’ really means, and whether single-use disposables are truly a ‘waste’ if they are helping reduce the spread of disease.

(After all, almost all of us would argue that hospitals are a great place to use single-use plastic, for exactly this reason.)

But we are not going to have that conversation. Because that keeps the conversation around reusables, and anyone who has been trying to live low waste or zero waste for more than about five minutes knows that the choices we make and habits we form are so much more than reusable coffee cups and takeaway containers.

Zero waste is not – at its heart – about reusables. Zero waste is a mindset. It’s an attitude, a philosophy, a goal, whatever you might prefer to call it. Reusables make zero waste living easier, but they aren’t a make-or-break.

The idea that zero waste is over because we can no longer purchase takeaway coffee from a multinational corporation in a reusable cup is missing the bigger picture. Takeaway coffee generally – there are bigger issues, when it comes to waste. Yes, as a society (well, in western parts of the world, and for the more privileged part of society) we might drink a lot of takeaway coffee, but it’s a small part of the global waste footprint.

Regardless, it is disheartening to see businesses take a step backwards (in terms of sustainability) and make these choices – even when they are justified for other reasons.

Rather than feel frustrated, I wanted to remind you of all the ways that we can try to live with less waste. Because there are plenty of things we can still do, and I like to focus on the positive (and the practical).

Zero waste things you can do in spite of coronavirus

Think creatively about the packaging you need to use. You might not have a choice about being able to use your own containers to the store. You might not currently have a choice with which store you buy your groceries from (if your preferred or regular store has run out of what you need). But maybe you can think creatively about what you buy or how you buy it to reduce your packaging (particularly single-use plastic).

Could you choose the unwrapped produce? The bigger pack sizes? The options without individual packs inside packs? The brands packaged in cardboard? Could you by in bulk (rather than from bulk) and split a larger amount with friends or family? If you can’t do it all, go for the small wins. It all helps.

Make something from scratch. Whether you simply haven’t been able to get something you usually buy pre-prepared, or your simply faced with more at-home time than you’re used to, now is a great time to learn to make something from scratch. Been wanting to try DIY nut milk since forever? Wondered about making bread, or crackers? Fancy giving DIY moisturiser a go?

Perhaps you can use this situation as an opportunity to try ‘one more thing’.

Reduce your food waste. You might not be able to choose whether or not you can BYO packaging, but you can work to ensure you’re not wasting the food that you buy. With the panic buying we’re currently seeing, it makes even more sense to ensure we are using up what we actually buy before it goes bad.

Make sure you are storing food properly so that it lasts, clear out your freezer to make room for leftovers, make a ‘use me first’ shelf in the fridge so everyone in your household knows what needs eating first.

(I’ve got a free resource coming soon all about reducing food waste, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Compost your food scraps. This is different to reducing food waste. This is ensuring that those inedible bits (cores, pips, stems, outer leaves etc) are not put into the landfill / general waste bin. Whether you can set up a system at home – I’ve written about composting, worm warms and bokashi systems if you’d like to know what your options are – or whether you make the most of community composting services, this is a great way to reduce waste.

Now is a great time to set something up – or at least start doing the research.

Buy less stuff. The best thing you can do to reduce your waste is to buy less stuff. Even ‘sustainable’ stuff has a footprint. A big part of the zero waste lifestyle is making do, and making things last. Maybe that means getting stuff fixed. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll never need to buy anything again ever – but as a general rule, the less you buy, the more sustainable you are and the less waste you create.

If you need something, see if you can borrow, or find it for free on Freecycle, Freegle or Buy Nothing. Libraries don’t just lend out physical products, they lend out ebooks, online movies and electronic versions of magazines too – so even if you can’t get to your physical library, you might have options. If you need to buy something, check out the second-hand options first.

(Whether this is possible will depend on what it is and where you’re living – and what the isolation restrictions are – but it is still a consideration).

If you do need to buy something brand new, don’t feel guilty about that. There are better ways to use your energy. Just try to make those purchases mindfully.

Learn more about the issues you care about. You might not be able to take action now in all the ways you’d like, but you can use this time to read up on topics that interest you, try out some new skills, and connect with like-minded people (even if only online, for now).

There are so many great books (or ebooks and audiobooks) and useful blog posts. And courses and videos. And social media pages and groups.

Take the time to get informed.

Write letters and apply pressure to those in power (or make a plan to). It might seem like an inopportune moment to be hassling your supermarket about their single-use plastic packaging policy, or asking your local government member to support a plan to divest in fossil fuels, but these issues aren’t going away, even if they are buried under more pressing needs.

(In fact, some governments and companies are using the fact that others are distracted to push through unpopular decisions, such as the announcement this week by the Victorian government to lift the moratorium on onshore drilling for gas.)

If you have the time and headspace, you might want to use it to start (or continue) to apply pressure on businesses, organisations or government officials to demand change, or ask for answers on policy and decision-making.

You don’t have to send any letters or emails you write straightaway. If the timing seems insensitive or you know it won’t be looked at, you can prepare for when things are settled, do your research, and be ready to go.

Keep supporting your local zero waste store, or independent local businesses, even if they temporarily have to change their policy and disallow reusables. You’ll want them to be there when things get back to normal, so keep supporting them whilst things get tough.

It’s a lot easier for big multinationals to weather disruption than small stores. They need our help.

I don’t want to sugar coat anything – we are in the strangest of times. There are lots of things to be concerned about. But multinational companies opting for disposable coffee cups isn’t one of them. We are better placed focusing our energy elsewhere.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How are you feeling about waste and sustainability issues – have they slipped from your radar, are they there in the back of your mind, or are they at the forefront? Are you coping or are you struggling right now? There’s no right or wrong answers here and definitely no judgement so tell us how you’re feeling and where you’re at, and share any ideas or thoughts in the comments below. We’re in this together.

Why coronavirus does not mean the end of zero waste
27 replies
  1. Jacinta
    Jacinta says:

    With all the run on hand wash and disinfectants etc, a perfect time to start making ones own!!!!!!!!!!!!
    How best to disinfect?
    Homemade handwash etc.
    Perhaps worth re running some of this to remind us all

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Jacinta! I was planning to write a post on making soap but the store was out of caustic soda when I went. And I don’t go there often. I was scared of making it for about 10 years and when I did, I realised its not so scary after all. On the to-do list!

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    The recipe for homemade handwash uses isopropyl which is impossible to purchase in Perth so am just sticking to soap and water but have ordered some tea tree handwash from an Australian made firm as well though not sure if its effective as sanitiser.
    As I am now in my late 70’s have been brought up using good old fashioned soap and water method but i know times have changed. In the meantime i keep doing my best for the future of my grandchildren and the planet.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Heather, I discovered yesterday that you can actually use the Diggers brand of methylated spirits, which is 95% ethanol and 5% water and does not contain any methanol – and it non toxic to humans. (You can find the product specification online, and call their number to speak to a representative with questions). They add something to denature it, but it’s not a toxic chemical. (They won’t tell you what it is, but I did find an interesting online forum with a bunch of chemists trying to figure it out, who eliminated a lot of bad stuff.)

      Soap is actually the best thing to kill the virus, and better than sanitizer if you have access to water and a sink to wash your hands. Sounds like you are well set up!

  3. Lucinda Coates
    Lucinda Coates says:

    re hand wash: if you’re somewhere with water, sink and soap then good old soap is the best thing. The second best thing is hand sanitiser and I’ve no idea how to make it but you need to ensure it is at least 60% alcohol (ethanol I guess).

  4. Louise
    Louise says:

    My unpackaged shop is 45 minutes away on the bus (government has advised against unnecessary use of public transport) and my local supermarket is out of flour. I still have about two weeks supply of pasta before I have to worry about compromising my principles though. But the loo roll will run out then too, and if the supermarket has none, a trip to the unpackaged shop might become essential travel. Or I could use a cloth. Not to make into pasta though.
    Yes, challenging, but by principles are my own, and THAT’S why they’re easier to stick to. And if I am forced to break them, I don’t get angry over it, but get it right next time.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Louise, it took me a while to get back to you on this (I somehow missed your comment at the time!) and I’m wondering how you got on? Personally I’ve found I’m beginning to settle into a new routine now. My bulk store was out of flour last time I went so I’ll try to stock up when I go again, but I can live without flour. Chocolate no, but my neighbour gets me a bar when she goes to the store, which keeps me happy ;)

      Yes, I can relate to what you say about principles. There’s some things I just won’t/can’t break, but other things I can be more flexible with. Our own internal compass :)

  5. Zoë
    Zoë says:

    We’re not going anywhere like Starbucks anyway because we’re keeping ourselves to ourselves, but the potential of spending months in the house has made us think more about how we can entertain ourselves using good, old fashioned methods. My daughter is suddenly willing to learn how to bake bread, how to crochet, how to darn socks, etc. If she’s going to be off school for months and unable to see her friends she recognises the importance of creating her own entertainment in a way that is completely new for someone of her generation.

  6. Melanie Hawkes
    Melanie Hawkes says:

    I have a disability and have several people come to my house and work for me. I can’t find hand soap refill anywhere! I don’t feel it’s safe to use bars of soap with so many different people using it. I use pump bottle now. Am I being paranoid? Will it be safe enough to use? Hygiene is so important right now and I need to keep myself and my workers safe. I will keep looking or can you give me a recipe please? Dishwashing liquid is easy to find!

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Hi, the soap kills the virus so you should be ok using bar soap, just run the bar under the tap for a moment before using it or have one bar for visitors and one bar for yourself. Personally I have always used bar soap, even when I worked in the laboratory.

      • Mara
        Mara says:

        I’m sorry I can’t provide a link but a book I read said to grate or cut up your soap, dissolve it in warm water and let it solidify into a jelly then whiz it up into a liquid using a stick blender to make your own liquid soap. I haven’t personally tried this so can’t offer personal advice.

  7. nofixedstars
    nofixedstars says:

    thank you for this. i had been having many of the same thoughts, both the frustrations and the keep doing what we can resolve…

    one good thing i have seen in my area is that at least some people are heading out of doors to walk, hike, generally restore themselves in nature. and some of them even started a group effort to clean up local streams and woodland, hauling away truck-loads of rubbish from decades of neglect. so that is something positive.

  8. Darren Pine
    Darren Pine says:

    Putting the current issues to one side, and yes we will get over this, it is important to let these companies and businesses know that once some sort of normality resumes we won’t accept single use items. That will never become the new normal as fsr ss I am concerned.

  9. sailorssmallfarm
    sailorssmallfarm says:

    Thanks for this, and helping us all think it through a bit more clearly. I’ve never been much of a take out coffee person, so that’s not been an issue for me…but grocery shopping, yes. On the upside, though, as you said, in the last month, even though I can’t buy from my bulk shop right now, my husband who was awake to all this back in January (!), bought in some larger packages of rice, beans, chick peas and flour. Which has reduced the number of trips to the store for one. The flour and the fact that I’m home for the duration means I’m making all our bread – no more bread bags! Salad greens are coming in a plastic box but we’re buying the largest possible and so far, they’ve made great mini greehouses for my seed starts. Once the seed starts become actualy plants, I will not need to buy plastic boxes. Shopping less often and for what we actually need maybe a good new habit we get out of all this. Learning to do things from scratch while we have all this time at home means it will be easier when we’re someday back to our normal busy – the skill set will always be there.

  10. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    Seems I’m very lucky. My local zero waste shop (Lemon & Jinja) has really stepped up. First they were just increasing the cleaning/ sanitising in store, plus making a sink and soap available for customers to use when they came in. Now, with the increase in cases in the UK, they have made it so only staff operate the food dispensers (washing hands between doing orders), but with the shoppers containers. They have also started a click and collect – either drop of your own containers or they will supply them. Total stars!

    Oh and they also have a little cafe – drink in or take away in your own container :-)

    Now if only I could order my veg box – they had to shut down orders because of such high demand this week :-(

    I’m avoiding going out because I have asthma, but was forced ;-) to go to the garden centre to get compost and seeds. Bit earlier than I normally would, but don’t want to be shut down and unable to grow my cucumbers and tomatoes! The horror!

    I’ve bought some comfry seeds so in future I can grow my own soil conditioner/ plant food. And will be getting my little worm farm going again to produce worm tea to feed my tomatoes. :-)

    Have also got a book on seed saving. It’ll be interesting see whether the seeds I haphazardly saved last year (chilli, garlic chives, tomatoes, peppers) actually germinate. This is so making me want to get in the garden!

    All the best to you all out there at this trying time!

  11. Idgy
    Idgy says:

    It’s been a bit challenging re. reducing waste. I live in Canada. Bulk Barn is requiring we use plastic bags vs. own container in addition to wearing the plastic gloves they give you when you enter the store. Some grocery stores won’t allow you to bring in own bags so we switched to one that did (they won’t bag for us if we bring our own). On the good side, seeing/hearing people have reduced their overall consumption on non essentials. Also much less cars on the road and very few airplanes overhead. Some very happy dogs in our area as they getting more walks and are having their people around more.

  12. wendmoo
    wendmoo says:

    WE have closed our community composting hub at our community garden,due to the management committee fears that we could not be sure about handwashing,etc. Sad face

  13. Niccy
    Niccy says:

    Thanks Lindsay,
    Your thoughts, research and suggestions are ever inspiring. I appreciated reading again the definition of a zero waste lifestyle commitment. I have just been feeling some stress over this new craziness like online buying of food and requesting non plastic wrapped, as well as the idea of the need to wash fruit and vegetables in hot soapy water! The NZ Ministry of health guidelines suggest this is not necessary but many people are doing so.
    Your calm reasoned writing is quite grounding right now!
    Much appreciated
    Niccy Fraser

  14. Amy
    Amy says:

    Hi Lindsay, this is so beautifully framed and written, thank you! We’ve been working with cafes in Perth who are struggling personally between their sustainability values and just keeping afloat. Many are adapting, like only using compostable cups (not ideal, but still better than plastic) and many are encouraging customers not to get a plastic lids. Some are still doing contactless BYO cup pouring (the best!).
    It has only been a few weeks of this chaos and just because a cafe might not be using reusables at the moment, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.


  15. Ally
    Ally says:

    I’m based in Wales although I’m orginially from Perth which is where you’re based now!
    As your probably aware the UK has been in intense lockdown for most of the Pandemic.
    Some things have been more challenging then others with keeping waste down, especially for my husband as I eat a Vegan diet.
    My husband likes his meat and cheeses so the Supermarket or independent deli counters near us are only open in certain sections, some items he can get package free. Other items he can’t include cheeses, sliced meats and certain minces so he purchases reduced to clear versions or the largest packet available.
    We also buy large bags of frozen products including peas, corn and other meat or fish based products which last us a while to a long time.
    Some companies are reducing their plastic content which is good. Some plastics can be recycled via the Supermarket if they have a certain symbol on them or via the Terracycle program which you may have heard of as your from the UK.
    Purchasing loose fruit and vegetables hasn’t been a problem. We also purchased tinned and glassed items too. Our two local ZeroWaste shops No Waste Living and Truffles are operating and doing well.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Ally and thanks for your comment! Yes the UK has had a very different Covid experience to us here in Perth. I’m glad to hear that your bulk stores/zero waste shops are still operating and doing well, that’s so great. Sounds like your husband is making a great effort under the circumstances. Hopefully we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now…

  16. Alison Deacon
    Alison Deacon says:

    I have a dog & use the plastic bags that I do have to have to clean up after him

    I buy bagged “wonky” veg, which reduces food waste however they are not loose?

    I find that I still have to buy dog “do”bags otherwise – biodegradable when possible

    My last dog went in my garden and I flushed it down the loo after using an old container n stick to pick it up

    What do other people do with pet waste?

    I buy dry dog food in paper sacks not plastic ones now


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