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Is it safe to get takeaway coffee in a reusable cup?

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As cafes and other businesses adapt to COVID-normal practices, author and climate change advocate Natalie Isaacs explains why reusables can be just as safe as single-use items.

The pandemic has not only taken a terrible toll on people's lives, but has also increased plastic pollution. It's been estimated that for every month of the COVID-19 pandemic, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves have been disposed of. And this doesn't even count the take away containers and disposable coffee cups that have made a comeback. But we can't blame ourselves. We have been inundated with new information on a daily basis, telling us what is and isn't hygienic, what we should and shouldn't do.

It made sense when we saw cafes start to refuse reusable cups, and had conversations about bringing back single-use plastic shopping bags. Single-use plastic has built up a reputation for being the most hygienic option. When it comes to medical equipment, that's often the case. But in regular day to day life, disposable plastic doesn't stand up against reusables in the hygiene department.

I'll explain why I believe you can start taking your reusables back to the supermarket and your local cafe. If you're not sure a business is accepting reusables, ask them about it and try to pass on the message about why it's okay to start doing so. This is also a great way to support local, smaller grocery stores and coffee shops and open up a dialogue about this.

Who says single-use plastic isn't safer than reusables?

Over 115 health experts from 18 countries say so. In a statement from Green Peace published in June 2020, they reassure the public that reusables and refillables are safe to use as long as proper basic hygiene is practised.

What the experts are saying:

According to the COVID-19 safety advisory committee at the North Carolina State University, "At this time there is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19."

It's been shown that COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person, in airborne droplets that enter the air when we cough, sneeze, or even just talk. Based on current medical advice, one of the most effective ways to avoid the virus is to stay out of enclosed rooms and spaces that have people from outside our household in them.

How to keep your reusables and refillables safe

According to scientists, single-use plastics are no safer than reusable items because the virus can still live on plastic surfaces. In fact, a Guardian report on this study showed the COVID-19 virus could live on plastic up to 3-6 days as opposed to 1 day on cloth and 3 days on glass. Regardless of what your reusables are made from, make sure you wash them thoroughly between uses if they hold liquids, and wash any solids you've had in your reusable containers and bags (such as fruit and vegetables that have been sitting on supermarket shelves).

The scientist-approved statement says that dishwashers and washing machines are effective, just like disinfectants, if operated correctly. For the washing machine, this means using the warmest water setting.

If you do head to the grocery store, try to have a contact-free interaction. This means bagging your own items and not handing your bag to the employee at the check-out.

How I got my reusable coffee cup accepted at my local cafe again

Much like everyone else, at the start of the pandemic, I didn't know whether or not it was safe to take my reusable cup to the cafe. So for a few months, I resorted to not having coffee at all, or when we were allowed to sit in at the cafe again, I would do that.

But once everything started to get better, and it became clearer that reusables were okay, for me it was just about not giving up. I took my coffee cup to my local cafe over and over again, letting them know that I had cleaned it really well. It did take a while before they said that yes, they were comfortable taking my cup again but it's just gotten better and better from there.

These days in Sydney, I hand my cup over and never have any trouble at all getting a waste-free takeaway coffee. I always just make sure my cup is really clean, and I hand it over without the lid, so that's one less thing the barista has to touch.

A safe way to get your waste-free coffee

The City to Sea organisation has developed a four-step practice to ensure safe interaction between you and the barista at the cafe which is a simple but effective process to keep in mind.

The process includes:

  1. Place your clean reusable cup (lid off) on a designated tray and step back two metres.
  2. The barista takes the tray with your cup over to the coffee machine, extracts the coffee into a normal crockery cup or espresso cup and steams the milk, as required.
  3. Without touching the customer's reusable cup, the attendant pours the coffee and milk into your cup, takes the tray back to the till and steps back two metres.
  4. Enjoy coffee in your favourite reusable cup.

Support your local

Now is the perfect time to support your local farmers' markets, small grocers and delis. It's likely that the produce from these places will have been touched far less than if they were sitting on supermarket shelves, and it gives you more of an opportunity to speak to vendors about bringing reusables back.

Living with the least impact on the planet has certainly been challenged throughout this pandemic. Reusables and single-use plastics is one area that's been negatively affected by the pandemic, but there have been other challenges too, like now driving our cars over taking public transport or panic buying more food than we need.

One thing I believe has increased for the better during this time is our love of Earth and our appreciation of community. That can't be undervalued. That walk along the beach or in the bush or just down the street to the park has given us a new perspective on what's important and that is a huge plus for the planet, for engaging in community, supporting local and for living lighter on this Earth.

Ready to ditch takeaway coffee cups? Check out Finder's pick of reusable options here. If you're looking for more ways to make sustainable choices, Finder Green has options for your money, energy, travel shopping and more.

Natalie Isaacs is the author of "Every Woman's Guide To Saving The Planet" and founder and CEO of 1 Million Women, a global movement of women and girls who take practical action to fight dangerous climate change by changing the way they live. Natalie's philosophy for 1 Million Women is that real behaviour change begins with personal action. Through her mission, Natalie has empowered tens of thousands of schoolgirls and hundreds of thousands of women to change the way they live. A former cosmetic manufacturer, her own climate change journey from apathy to action cuts through the complexity of this vital 21st century challenge and delivers a simple message that resonates with women and girls of all ages.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder has taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.

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Images: Getty Images, supplied (Natalie Isaacs)

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