Will the Coronavirus Kill the Zero-Waste Movement?

empty toilet paper roll

A reporter contacted me this morning, asking me how—or if—I thought the coronavirus might affect the zero-waste movement. I’ve been pondering my zero-waste habits during this outbreak, asking myself if I should change my routine.

unpackaged produce from the farmers' market
Naked produce from the farmers’ market

Wash your hands after shopping for any food

I’ll continue to shop for naked produce at the farmers’ market and to fill up on staples at the bulk bins. I’ve run out of a few bulk items and will hit the bulk bins later today. My kombucha SCOBYs need sugar, I want some looseleaf black tea and we all need chickpeas, a zero-waste food group.

Personally, I’m no more concerned about coronavirus lurking in the bulk bins than anywhere else in the grocery store. Think of all the people who have handled the frozen pizzas or cereal boxes or anything else on the shelves for that matter. I’ll wash my hands well after I return home with my goods and I’ll continue to avoid touching my face.

If stores won’t allow you to fill up your own containers at the bulk bins—and I’m unaware of whether that has happened—you can reduce your packaging to product ratio by buying the largest package possible if that makes sense for you (i.e., if you will eat all of the food). You’ll get more food for less packaging than you will if you buy a bunch of small packages.

Update: Soon after as I posted this, I learned that Bulk Barn in Canada has suspended its reusable container program. Go here for zero-waste shopping without access to bulk bins.

empty toilet paper roll
Don’t panic

Sleep soundly at night, despite the rumors of an impending bathroom tissue shortage

Of all the things to worry about in this world at the moment, a bathroom tissue shortage seems like the least pressing issue.

If we do run out of bathroom tissue due to panic hoarding, we will survive. Almost everyone has a bunch of old t-shirts. Cut those up and use your new wee wipes to dab yourself after urinating. Then toss them in the laundry, just like you do dirty underwear. You won’t die. Use rationed bathroom tissue or a bidet for doo-doo. I apologize for the TMI, but I use wee wipes for blotting and I love them. I likely conserve a couple of rolls of bathroom tissue every month.

Regarding wee wipes, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology Lauren F Streicher, MD, told The Guardian,

People urinated long before toilet paper became available. There are zero health concerns with this … people have urine on their underwear all the time.”

As always, wash your hands well after using the toilet.

looseleaf tea in jars
Looseleaf tea in jars

Brew your own

On Wednesday, Starbucks announced that, during the coronavirus outbreak, it will not fill customers’ reusable mugs or serve drinks in its ceramic for-here mugs in the US and Canada. Customers will receive their drinks in the company’s standard throwaway plastic-lined paper cups. However, if you take your reusable mug or order a for-here cup, you’ll still receive your usual 10 cent discount. But your server cannot fill your reusable cup or provide you with a for-here cup (please don’t blame the servers).

Many low-wasters who ordinarily take their reusable mugs to Starbucks will no doubt avoid the chain altogether, as will millions of other consumers during the outbreak. As a result, even while temporarily banning reusables, Starbucks may actually generate less trash during the outbreak because people will avoid eating and drinking out.

I would love to write this post from a comfy outdoor seat at my favorite café on this sunny day but we have 14 confirmed cases of the virus here in Santa Clara county (as of Wednesday) so I’m typing at home while drinking looseleaf oolong tea I brewed myself, which saved me over $3. (Although I will need to head out later to buy groceries, I don’t need to go to the café.)

While millions of us adjust to brewing our coffee or tea at home, something crucial may happen: Many of us will come to realize that we can capably brew a cup of coffee or tea ourselves. We may also realize that slowing down isn’t terrible but rather, a sane and pleasant way to live.

Obviously the coronavirus outbreak is simply terrible. But while it forces us all to slow down, it shows us that we can all slow down. And slow down we must. The planet cannot sustain our on-the-go consumer lifestyles.

23 Replies to “Will the Coronavirus Kill the Zero-Waste Movement?”

  1. Thank you for writing this sensible post!

    1. Thank you Caroline 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

    2. It is very sensible, and some grains of hope, perhaps those awful coffee chain giants might réalise customers don’t want or need throwaway cups, and we may find ways of avoiding too much bathroom tissue, although, I understand for many that is harder. Keep up the level headed Ness and useful advice please

    3. Marianne Cote says: Reply

      Could you please contact CBC NEWS etc. and ask to do a show on bidets? This stockpiling craze sounds like an exceptionally great time to promote the use of TP-free, zero-waste, hygiene alternatives. Little hand held squirt bottle travel bidets, which you fill at the sink with the water temperature of your choosing, and $300+ Japanese style remote control bidets that wash and dry your bum for you.
      You write very engagingly and I think you could be a great person to lead this.

      1. Not the CBC, and not in US either, but this was published in Irealnd: http://bookofleavespodcast.com/ep-24-toilet-paper-vs-the-bidet/

  2. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    I’m a bit puzzled why reusable cups are not ok – am I missing something here? Is it to protect the staff from touching something touched by the customer?
    Not to minimise the suffering this outbreak has already caused, I think the media is hyping it up and people are not really thinking clearly when they panic. If what I read is true, as of yesterday there were only 99 confirmed cases of the virus in the US. Last year there were 15,292 deaths from guns in the US. Just let that sink in. Many people who get Corona virus will not need to go to hospital and here in Australia we saw an interview with a couple who had it and didn’t really feel unwell at all – one of them had a bit of a sore throat, the other, no symptoms. In Australia, a country with about one tenth the population of the US, 1146 people were killed in car accidents last year. We take all of these other deaths for granted yet completely panic when a much smaller number of people are killed by a virus.

    Yes, hand washing is great, as is wearing a mask or staying home if needs be. If you have time check out the speech on youtube given by Deepak Chopra. He talks about getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition and avoiding negative thinking and panic. The common sense things, really. And he talks about the opportunity for us to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. It’s worth checking out.


    1. Hi Madeleine,

      I don’t understand how a for-here cup is more likely to spread germs than a throwaway cup. By that logic, all sit-down restaurants should swap their china for disposables. And think of the barista placing the plastic lid on the cup with the palm of their hand. Minutes after I posted this, a friend told me that a big bulk chain store in Canada just announced it will no longer allow customers to use their own containers to fill up.

      Like you said, the coronavirus is a problem but people are panicking (e.g., the hoarding). I worry about my 88-year-old mom getting it but the majority of us will be fine. Thanks for the video recommendation. We all need to stay calm.
      ~ Anne Marie

    2. Madeleine-

      You make an excellent point!!! 15,292 deaths from guns in the US vs 99 CASES of the corona virus in the US and only 12 deaths from the virus in the US of the writing of this comment. And yet Americans get all hysterical over a virus and take little to no action to prevent gun violence. 🙄

      I also saw a news report of a British gentleman (in his ~30s) living in China that contracted the corona virus back in November 2019 and made a full recovery and at the time he didn’t even know that he had the corona virus and just thought he had the flu. Understandably, the elderly and/or anyone with a weakened immune system is at higher risk, but they are also at risk from other health threats as well such as the flu, pneumonia etc.

  3. I ❤ that you were contacted by a reporter. ☺ My primary comment is “how can we have healthy people if we don’t have healthy planet?!? 🌎 My Dad passed away from cancer in 2017 and while he was in the hospital it was shocking how much trash was generated by the hospital (I estimate at least 6 bags of trash per DAY per patient, not including common areas). I always found it very ironic that they were trying to help people get healthy while totally trashing the planet. 😥

  4. I really dont understand how single use paper cups could possibly be safer than reusable ceramic mugs… thats nonsense and they should know… if afraid about any virus just dont go to any store and just dont buy any to go stuff that somebody could have possibily touched… the paper cups can be conatminated too… it is a shame that this is still going around as a great misinformation… I heard from a greek girl in estonia: “well people think it is more hygienic to eat and drink from disposables in a store” and I was like: yeah well, the barista is touching the cup, the lid, the straw, the spoon, the fork, the napkin, the plate … the barista could even sneeze …. but yeah if they think it is more hygienic….. 😉

  5. I am in Northern Italy at the moment, one of the supposed ‘hotspots’ and life continues as normal.
    There is food in the shops, and loo paper.
    I spoke to my husband in the UK last night, “There is no toilet paper in Sainsbury’s! There’s nothing on the shelves!” The British press has really gone to town on Coronavirus.
    It is terrible that anyone has died – but so far it doesn’t seem to be a truly deadly virus, although it is early days in the outbreak. From what I have read, the main danger is that it spreads so rapidly that the healthcare services become overwhelmed, which will cause the death toll to rise. The worldwide death toll at the moment is significantly lower than that caused by seasonal flu or even deaths on the road.
    I still think that this degree of panic and hysteria would be better directed to issues like Climate Change, which truly will be deadly to the entire human race.

  6. Bitten Jensen says: Reply

    As far as I have read, 80% of the cases with Corona virus people do not even get terribly sick. Symptoms such as a bad cold. Some people will not even know that they are sick. I acknowledge the fact that the Corona virus will disrupt travelling, economies, consumption (but is that so bad?) and people will unfortunately die from this, which is horrible, however, I do find some of the media coverage to be hysterical.

    As of yet, I have not heard about any hoarding of staples or loo paper here in Denmark, but again it is early days, so perhaps the shelves will be empty when we do our weekly shopping on Sunday. Today, the Danish prime minister advised against all gatherings of more than 1.000 people. The result has been cancelled concerts, conferences, meetings and soccer/football matches without spectators. At the highschool where I teach, our common gathering has been cancelled on Monday. Time will tell, how much more our lives will be affected by the outbreak. Until then my life will continue without major disruptions. I will shop for groceries, kiss my husband and read a book with a cup of tea (brewed in my kitchen – although I would have no scruples going out to a café, and I am absolutely certain that the tea would be served in a ceramic cup :-)).

  7. I don’t watch cable news because I want to maintain my sanity and only became aware of the depth of hysteria over coronavirus last night. I was dining with a friend and she described a recent trip to Costco in which there was flurries of people stockpiling goods in the event of an outbreak. By the time my friend reached the toilet paper aisle the shelves were empty. Did I happen to mention that I live in Montana, one of the most sparsely populated places in the U.S., and a place where there have been zero reported cases? I think I’ll just keep doing what I normally do, but I will make an extra charitable donation to nonprofits focusing on marginalized populations threatened by the virus. Partners in Health does amazing work and is already on the ground in places with poor healthcare infrastructure, in case anyone is interested.

  8. Are all people paying for their beverage with a contactless card? If not is your money not likely to carry more germs than your cup? Maybe sneeze on your payment and see if they give you your coffee for free rather than touch the cash? This last comment is a joke btw; it’s not the barista’s fault. 😉

    1. This has actually been raised in Ireland, where I live, and some places are thinking of refusing cash payments for this reason.

  9. Excellent article and I am so with you on the slowing down is a good thing. Make time to make your coffee – it feels like real living. Thanks for an excellent post!

  10. Maxine Wright says: Reply

    Just tried to use my reusable mug for tea here at Tom Hortons in Canada and was denied because they had received notice this morning that because of the Corona virus they could not do this for me. I then sit down to drink it out of a disposable cup 😔 and readd this article.

  11. Helen Green says: Reply

    Surely the Coffee shop chains, would save money, if they did allow people to bring their own cups for refill and the staff wore gloves of some sort or even better for everyone, if they handled a cup, made the drink, then handled the cash and washed their hands, before serving the next customer. To be honest I’ve never liked the idea of buying food from someone who has also handled cash. The staff never seem to wash their hands, perhaps they should begin to do so/ The Media in the UK have stirred everyone up to panic buy and loo paper and facial tissues, seem to be the things that people bulk shop and not sensible things like food!

  12. The Starbucks here in Japan are also refusing to fill any cups that a customer brings in, but is still giving the discount. Kind of a bummer, but brewing coffee and tea at home isn’t all that difficult.

  13. […] scoops used to transfer food, regardless of the container or bag that’s being filled. Indeed, zero waste expert Anne-Marie Bonneau points out that contamination can come from […]

  14. […] the scoops used to transfer food, regardless of the container or bag that's being filled. Indeed, zero waste expert Anne-Marie Bonneau points out that contamination can come from […]

  15. Hopefully after this corona virus threat has passed, people will learn to use food smartly and not throw away food or waste food. We should all learn to value the things we have and not waste things. Seeing tonnes of food being thrown out every evening at supermarkets all these years in the United States, I’m hoping these times teach us to value and not waste.

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