Safely Zero Waste: Waste Prevention and Reuse Tactics during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published on: 
28 May 2020
Marialyce Pedersen, TRUE Advisory Council Member

Written by guest contributor Marialyce Pedersen, TRUE Advisory Council Member


While coping with a global pandemic has presented challenges to continued progress in zero waste, dedicated individuals and businesses are defending recycling and innovating quickly with new or adapted reuse approaches that protect public health and safety while reducing single-use plastics generation that results in unrecyclable waste.  

While health and safety should of course remain the top priority, a wide array of resources are available demonstrating that we can provide for the health and safety of care workers and the public while also limiting the use of disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and therefore reducing waste. This article is intended to highlight some of those resources, and share stories of efforts to ensure continued progress on zero waste during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An emerging challenge is increasing plastic production for disposable PPE and other single-use materials, followed by brief use, and medical waste incineration of discarded PPE in waste-to-energy facilities. This causes a cascade of negative environmental impacts, and diminishes public health and safety, with many of those impacts falling disproportionately on disadvantaged communities where polluting facilities are located.[1]

But communities are stepping up globally to ensure that recycling, reuse, and zero waste efforts are not lost in this new normal. The European Union (EU), for example, is staying strong in its commitment to reduce many single-use plastics (SUPs) by 2021, despite a plastics industry trade association request to postpone implementation due to COVID-19. The EU Commission rejected that bid, stating that good hygiene practices should be applied to all products, including substitutes of banned SUPs.[2] And residents in the US are now rising up to prevent lifting of hard-fought regional plastic bag bans.[3]

In May 2020, nonprofit UPSTREAM published The Safety of Reuse During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which answers an array of FAQs with reputable references regarding the safety of reuse and reusable products. UPSTREAM also hosted a webinar in April, Indisposable: The Safety and Future of Reuse.

 The importance of leveraging reuse systems in hospital and care-home settings, and elsewhere, has never been more critical, as they can largely prevent shortages inherent when one-time use and disposal of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the norm. Nurses, doctors and facilities staff, each equipped with a week’s worth of reusable gowns and durable masks, along with access to certified laundering or sanitizing, would never run out of PPE, while reducing overhead costs. (US health-care facilities generate about 14,000 tons of waste per day; up to 25 percent is plastic.[4])

Cloth gowns, masks and hats, washed nightly in massive hospital laundries (or off-site) were a standard in healthcare until the 1960s, when single-use plastics were marketed as safer protection against cross-contamination. Yet most viruses, including COVID-19, are not difficult to kill with normal sanitizing procedures, including wiping with disinfectant or laundering.

Hospital learnings may prove instructive to other businesses which are preparing to reopen and will need to furnish PPE for their employees, while being conscious of costs. (Provision of washable cloth masks to employees is a one-time cost; furnishing single-use, disposable masks every day to an entire workforce may be fiscally prohibitive for now-struggling businesses.) 

Healthcare Reuse Highlights & Resources

  • Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization advocating for environmental best practices in the healthcare community, surveys and tracks hospitals that have replaced single-use plastics with reusables, and provides resources to help others do the same.
    • Greening the OR Guidance Documents provides case studies, including one from Kaiser Permanente, in which the use of reusable surgical gowns and basin sets reduced regulated medical waste by 30 tons, at a savings of 3.8 percent.
    • Moving (Back) to Reusables in the OR, revealed that costs are about the same to provide sanitized cloth gowns vs. paper, and both patients and doctors prefer cloth.
  • A Health Care Without Harm Projects and Case Studies webpage cites an Australian hospital where the annual financial savings of converting from single-use to reusable anesthetic equipment was approximately USD $25,600, a 46 percent reduction, and also resulted in energy, GHG and water conservation.
  • The CDC publication, Recommended Guidance for Extended Use and Limited Reuse of N95 Filtering Facepieces (masks), addresses best practices in cases where supplies are becoming depleted due to pandemics (published ~2015, prior to COVID-19).

The question on everyone’s mind is: are disposables, such as single-use plastics, safer than reusables? Reputable sources say “No”.

The other prominent and important question is: is it difficult to kill COVID-19 on surfaces (such as reusable bags or cloth face masks)? Reputable sources continue to say “no”: 

  • CDC published early laundering guidelines (How to Clean and Disinfect), noting that any soap, any laundry detergent, will break the outer barrier of coronaviruses and kill it.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides a list of registered antimicrobial products for use against Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2: List N: Disinfectants for SARS-CoV-2.
  • Professional laundries can be accredited by the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council (HLAC), ensuring they meet or exceed the highest standards of textile laundering. In April 2020, HLAC published updated guidance stating that reusable protective gear, washed by accredited laundries, is very safe.
  • For laundromat customers, the Coin Laundry Association published Safe Laundering Guidelines for COVID, which notes that regular cleaning helps prevent the spread of disease. It recommends not shaking dirty laundry and utilizing hot water and dryers.

Provided below are additional inspiring examples of perseverance in reuse in the time of COVID-19:

Protecting Regional Plastic Bag Bans

Temporary lifting of plastic shopping bag bans due to COVID-19 have occurred across the U.S., including Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and California.[5]

With frontline workers’ safety as a priority, shoppers are having to make a choice of going backwards to single-use bags. States like California, however, have issued OSHA-COVID guidelines for stores and workers. They can allow the client to use their own reusable bags and bag their own groceries. If that is not permitted, shoppers are commonly resorting to transporting groceries to vehicles in carts, where they can transfer their purchases to their bags. Environmental groups are working closely with health departments and grocery stores to provide the best data on reusable bags.

  • In May 2020, Sunrise Sequoyah Pasadena (CA) initiated a letter-writing campaign to Pasadena, CA Mayor Terry Tornek, requesting that the Pasadena City Council reinstate Pasadena’s bag ban and increase communication with the public regarding the safety of reusable items.

Zero Waste Refillable Stores Adaptations

Most retail zero waste/refill stores which were forced to close storefront operations due to COVID-19 have switched to providing on-line ordering and curbside pickups or deliveries, to protect customer health and safety, and touchless product dispensing innovations are arriving or are expected soon.

Safe Reuse Champion, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places in the world, has been a lodestar for keeping the virus at bay. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) HK reminds Hong Kong residents to continue bringing their own containers. Sierra Club Zero Waste Facebook recently posted photos from Hong Kong, including reusable foodware at a restaurant and reusable shopping bags at grocery stores.

 Moving Forward, Safely

The TRUE Certification Rating System provides extensive guidance on recommended best practices to reduce and reuse. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the zero waste community must constantly iterate to find safe ways to reduce waste, reuse materials, and recycle while keeping workers’ health and safety top of mind. With TRUE’s partners, this important work will continue to progress.  



[1] Health and Ecological Effects of Burning Medical Waste, Frances Beldia, Health Care Without Harm, Feb. 2015.

[2] EU dismisses industry calls to lift ban on single-use plastics, Frederic Simon,, April. 2020.

[3] In Coronavirus, Industry Sees Chance to Undo Plastic Bag Bans, Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, March, 2020.

[4] Can medical care exist without plastic? Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, October 2019.

[5] In Coronavirus, Industry Sees Chance to Undo Plastic Bag Bans, Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, March, 2020.