Reusables and Covid-19

Reusables and Covid-19

I’ve been able to access some fantastic webinars as a result of the global lockdown. A small win in the grand scheme of things but a win all the same. Most talked about the impact of the pandemic on the circular economy, the sustainable living / zero waste movement, campaigns against the climate crisis and reusables. This website is all about individual action so I’m going to take a micro view and focus on reusables. It’s not that I don’t believe in collective action or lobbying for system change, I do, it’s just not the focus of this website.

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Reusable Masks
I’ve only recently started to wear a reusable fabric mask that I bought back in March. I think I just felt really weird putting it on when so many weren’t wearing it.

I know there’s some controversy over wearing non-medical masks in Ireland. It’s true that they don’t offer the same protection as the medical ones and it could lead people to be less cautious about proven protection methods like social distancing and handwashing. Also there are fears that that if not handled correctly reusable masks could be a source of contamination.  My view is this;

– we should leave the medical-grade masks to those that really need them
– we should consider masks like safety belts. They don’t give you a licence to drive like a maniac in an old banger.
– we should consider a worn mask as contaminated until we have time to sanitise it. This means removing carefully and placing it somewhere safe until it can be cleaned effectively.

Having had a chance to research proven sanitising methods for reusable masks. I’ve drawn a blank. I can find no specific study that confirms the outcome of washing, freezing, ironing or isolating reusable fabric masks. I did find a recent study that determined that the virus couldn’t be detected on cloth after two days, but it was found on a surgical mask up to 7 days. This might be because surgical masks tend to be plastic, which earlier research has shown to harbour the virus longer than other materials. So really if you want to be safe the only reliable method for reusable masks is to wash them in detergent or soap after wearing. It’s not essential that the water is above a particular temperature because it is the soap or detergent that is breaking down the cell walls of the virus not the water temperature.

There are plenty of organisations selling reusable masks. I bought mine from a local not-for-profit maker. I’m sure there’s one in your area. Or if you’re handy enough with your sewing machine there are plenty of tutorials online. Here’s a few links to take a look at;

If you have to buy fabric for your mask here’s a guide on the research behind various fabric options for reusable masks

With regard to protection it seems that masks are better at protecting someone else from you than protecting you from them, but if most people worn one, more people would be protected. Obviously the better the fit, the more protection that’s offered but it can be hard to try on masks so even a badly fitting one will offer some protection. I didn’t bother with insert-able liners or anything like that. If you feel more comfortable having more than one layer or using woven liners then go right ahead, but just remember even with an all-bells-and-whistles mask you still need to stay 2 metres away from people outside your household and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, with soap, when you touch anything outside of your house.

Sanitiser Bottles
We’ve accumulated quite a few plastic bottles of this stuff in our house. I didn’t mind too much in the beginning when I thought all this malarkey was temporary but now it’s beginning to bother me. If you want to find a less damaging way to sanitise your hands when you can’t wash them I know Pax Wholefoods in Mayo are selling refills and I’ve seen reusable silicon bottles for sale, or you could just reuse one of the standard ones.

Reusable Containers and Package-free
Despite what the plastics industry might tell you plastic is not sterile and with a recent study finding that the virus can live on plastic and steel packaging for up to 72 hours it seems you’d be far safer refilling your own containers than buying packaged goods.

A lot of shops have stopped accepting customers’ own containers or offering package-free goods. I’m hoping this is temporary and given the stress that shop owners are under I’m leaving them alone for now. As things ease I will be asking my local shops if they’ll start accepting my containers again. If they aren’t comfortable doing so, that’s fine, I’ll just find a business that is. Thankfully my local zero waste store is still accepting my own containers and the veg I get delivered or pick up in my local veg shop is largely package free.

If you can’t get package-free then opt for paper where you can as a study found that Covid dies much quicker on paper than plastic so opt for that where you can.

Reusable Takeaway Cups
In the same way that shops have stopped accepting customers’ own containers some cafes have stopped accepting customers’ own takeaway cups, due to fear over cross contamination. But as this little video by zero waste coffee brand Cloud Picker in association with The Conscious Cup Campaign shows there’s a simple way to avoid the problem.

Even if a cafe isn’t in a position to accept a customers’ own takeaway cup they could still implement a reusable cup scheme like that on offer by 2gocup. By simply giving a new cup with every coffee and depositing returned cups in bins for cleaning a cafe can avoid disposable and cross contamination.

Thankfully the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has come out to say that reusables are safe to use and that disposable can give a false sense of security when it comes to contamination.

Stay safe, stay well


Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

5 thoughts on “Reusables and Covid-19

  1. I’ve been wondering about this topic too. When I shop (usually at a fruit and veg store) I fill up my trolley (aka shopping cart!) and then at the checkout just put everything back into the trolley and take everything outside and then put it into my reusable bags. They won’t allow me to use bags inside the store tho (for things like bulk items) but I agree with you that grocery store employees are under enough stress so I’m going with the flow for now..


    1. Thankfully we’re still allowed to use our reusable shopping bags in store, just not the reusable produce bags. Actually, it’s never been said that we can’t use reusable produce bags, I just haven’t. I just do the same as you when I can. Sometimes though a bag is unavoidable.


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