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Coronavirus: Can We Still Live Sustainably?

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A customer packs groceries in reusable bags at a NYC supermarket on March 1, 2020. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

By Martin Kuebler

The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown our daily routine into disarray. Billions are housebound, social contact is off-limits and an invisible virus makes up look at the outside world with suspicion. No surprise, then, that sustainability and the climate movement aren't exactly a priority for many these days.


We don't have to abandon our green habits during the crisis, but some might have to be adapted for the foreseeable future as we continue to learn about COVID-19 and how this new disease spreads.

The following, while not official medical advice, is based on the latest information from health authorities in Germany, the United States, the European Union and the World Health Organization.

It should be considered along with the official recommendations that have stressed the importance of maintaining distance and staying home, if possible — and, of course, proper hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Are foods wrapped in plastic safer?

People tend to view packaged foods as being cleaner and safer to consume, and research firm BloombergNEF pointed out in a mid-March report that "concerns around food hygiene due to COVID-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity." After all, much of the materials used in hospitals are made of single-use plastic, so shouldn't we apply the same standards to our food?

"Plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe," said Ivy Schlegel, a research specialist for Greenpeace USA, in a recent report from the environmental group. Schlegel pointed out that a number of studies, including one published March 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "the virus will persist on plastic longer than almost any material examined [up to three days in laboratory conditions — editor's note], which could call into question the safety of the majority of plastic-packaged items in supermarkets.

"While stores are wiping down and disinfecting surfaces like door handles, shopping carts and checkout card terminals, it's highly unlikely that employees have time to clean every package of pasta or can of beans. Bottled water isn't necessary, either: the European Food Information Council has pointed out that although the "virus can remain active in water for a short period of time," tap water is filtered and disinfected before it reaches the home, "which would inactivate the COVID-19 virus."

That means we can still choose glass or cardboard packaging over plastic. Purchased products can also be left in a separate box in an out-of-the-way place for three days, to allow any traces of the virus to die off. Fresh produce that will be eaten raw can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush and plenty of water; according to Mike Kortsch at Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), that's enough to ensure it's safe to eat, even unpeeled.

Do reusable bags and containers spread the virus?

Amid the outbreak, many businesses have temporarily banned the use of reusable containers and other items — most notably Starbucks, where, until recently, customers with a reusable cup could enjoy a discounted coffee. Some grocery stores have also sidelined reusable cloth bags and containers, over fears these items could spread the virus to other customers and store employees. Some communities are even reversing existing plastic bag bans or postponing their start.

What are the eco-friendly options? Where cloth bags are still allowed, it's probably fine to keep using them. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, based on current research, that it "may be possible" to be infected with COVID-19 from a surface or object with the virus on it, but "this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."

That appears to be especially true for porous or fibrous surfaces, like cardboard or cloth. But to err on the side of caution, bags should be washed after every use and kept in a separate place at home once groceries have been unloaded.

If forced to choose between paper or plastic, try to go for bags made from recycled materials. Both kinds have their disadvantages — plastic is most often made from fossil fuels or biofuels, while the production of paper bags uses up lots of water and virgin wood — but at least the paper versions will biodegrade.

Should we avoid grocery stores? Is takeout food safe to eat?

With restaurants closed and so many people stuck at home, the takeout business is booming. It's still a reliable option — the European Food Safety Authority has said there is "currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission" of COVID-19. Heat from cooking kills off the virus, deliveries can be paid for in advance and dropped off at the door, and the risk from packaging is low.

But what about all those plastic containers and pizza boxes? They add up, even if they're made from recycled material. Another way to avoid the problem of packaging and plastic bags — and the anxiety that comes with shopping during the COVID-19 outbreak — is to stay away from grocery stores altogether.

In some areas, for example, local organic farmers and food cooperatives are still delivering.

Vegetarian meals will also reduce the number of trips to the supermarket to buy fresh meat, for those without a freezer, and are better for the climate. Vegetarian and vegan diets generally have a lower carbon footprint than those that favor meat.

Another way to reduce our reliance on the grocery store is to grow food at home. Certain vegetables and sprouts — herbs, radishes, lettuce and microgreens, for example — can be grown quickly and easily in a small garden or on a balcony or window ledge. Compost scraps from veggies like carrots and leeks, among others, can also be used to regrow sprouts.

Does laundry need to be treated differently and disinfected?

Keeping things clean is an important way to stop the spread of the virus; the CDC has recommended that we wash clothing "using the warmest appropriate water setting … and dry items completely." But the additional use of very hot water and electric dryers will increase energy consumption.

"In normal everyday life, people in private households can wash their laundry as usual," said Germany's BfR. And we don't have to resort to harsh, polluting chemicals, since all soaps and detergents can help eliminate the virus. BfR does, however, advise that we treat clothing and other textiles from sick people differently, washing these items "at a temperature of at least 60° Celsius [140 Fahrenheit] with a heavy-duty detergent" and not shaking them out.

We can continue to hang clothes to air dry on a sunny day. Though sunlight can be used to kill off pathogens, according to the WHO, it hasn't been proven effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the virus will find it harder to survive on dry surfaces.

To cut back on laundry, consider keeping a set of clothes to wear outside the house for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Once back at home, they should be removed immediately and stored in a closed bag, to give the virus time to die off. And if using a public laundromat, remember to disinfect laundry baskets and washing machines.

Reposted with permission from DW.

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