The decision of some retailers such as coffee shops and grocery shops to not allow reusable containers during the COVID-19 crisis is fueled by their inability to guarantee the sanitation of cups and containers brought in from the outside. Retailers, instead of finding a safer way to properly sanitize reusable containers, now reject them altogether, with no exception.
This significantly increased the number of disposable products that are being used, hurting the reusable movement and moving us away from Zero Waste. In my opinion, this has not changed due to COVID-19 but has been instead a long-standing argument where retailers continue to reject people from bringing their own reusable containers and having them refilled.
What the COVID-19 crisis did do, was to make people feel like they shouldn’t even be asking to bring their own containers for a refill because they do not want to put other people at risk.
The Zero Waste movement has always been driving and pushing mainstream retailers to have their own reusable containers. However, as a response, retailers were allowing customers to bring their own reusable containers. Something most of us appreciated, as the sentiment is that, if these retailers are not going to do it themselves, at least let us bring our own reusable containers, and let us refill it.
In my opinion, this has actually slowed down the wider use of reusable cups and containers. I believe it just wouldn’t be efficient if everybody in the world, or even in one city, were to refill their own containers at all times.
The Zero Waste movement needs to demand more from retailers, because allowing someone to bring in their own container, to me, is the very minimal effort that any retailer can do. If we look at what has been happening in the last few months, it seems that many retailers are now using COVID-19 to reject reusable cups and containers altogether.
We need to be more forceful and demand that retailers have their own reusable systems. A system where retailers can interchange their own containers. A container that you can then bring back to the retailer, who can then properly sanitize it, refill it, and put it back on the shelves. It really is about shifting the supply chain of these materials from disposable packaging to refillable and reusable packaging.
To achieve this goal, standardized containers would need to be introduced and retailers could even find ways to brand those standardized containers for marketing. The standardized sizes and the way they are used would make it very efficient for everybody to take part.
For large retailers like Starbucks, which has a shop at every corner, this shouldn’t be a problem. They have the critical mass of stores and customers to implement this easily. Smaller businesses could work together or rely on a third party supplier that offers these services.
A refillable supply chain would also create local jobs because these systems work best when they are close to the customer for redistribution. We have seen during COVID-19 that resource scarcity can be a reality. With a reusable system, you don’t have to worry about trying to source things from far away. You can just keep using what you have and increase your supply gradually as needed.
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