How to Make the Best of a Slick Plastic, COVID-19-ridden Situation

As coronavirus puts us into lockdown, the situation is causing more havoc than just forcing people to stay at home. It’s also driving a sneaky increase on the use of disposable plastics.

The last lonely slice of leftover pizza in the refrigerator. Now it’s sitting on your kitchen counter and staring back at you. It’s daring you to either save it for later or eat it now and go get takeout or delivery for the next meal, which is in, let’s see – 4 to 6 hours. We’ve all been there.

So this is how we watched recent events unfold in Hong Kong: Last month, we had our own toilet paper run, as well as a fever-pitched foray into rice stockpiling. This month, much like other cities around the world, the local government here began to curb public gatherings. Last week, we saw the enforcing of the four-person limit on public social activities. This week, our city’s restaurants are facing limits to their services, such as the mandatory minimum of 1.5 metres’ space between tables.

Not to worry. Weeks ago, with typical speed, Hongkongers had already switched tactics and veered away from restaurant dining. Immediately, restaurants saw the bulk of their evening business spring from deliveries or take away.

In a bizarre knock-on effect, while global leisure consumption and restaurant dining have dropped dramatically, the plastics and disposable tableware industry is one of the few industries thriving in the current coronavirus outbreak.

Elsewhere overseas, by early March, Starbucks in the US and the UK (as well as Hong Kong) had already adopted the paper-cup route. To avoid cross-contamination, the brand announced it was temporarily nixing the practice of serving drinks in customer-supplied personal cups and the coffee chain’s own porcelain cups. (Starbucks in the UK was reportedly still honoring the 25-pence discount for bringing in a personal cup, and was suspending the usual 5-pence levy for paper cups.)

In its shunning of re-usable drinkware, the coffee giant hinted that it was in everyone’s best interest to opt for single-use cups. The BBC noted that this decision was made by the coffee chain internally and was not enforced on the advice of health officials.

But do germ experts agree? Professor Sally Bloomfield from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine noted that handing a reusable cup to a barista was just the same as shaking hands with that person, in terms of the risk of virus spreading. In her view, the reusable cup ban was “not being paranoid”.

In a bizarre knock-on effect, while global leisure consumption and restaurant dining have dropped dramatically, the plastics and disposable tableware industry is one of the few industries thriving in the current coronavirus outbreak.

Firing shots from the other side, Professor Bloomfield’s own colleague pointed out that advice on avoiding the virus didn’t include refraining from reusable cups. After all, regular handwashing “should be protocol” for Starbucks’ workers. (Food standard agencies have already recommended that food workers should wash their hands after touching objects like phones, cash registers and money.)

To clarify, Starbucks’ new policy is that if you bring your own personal cup, the coffee initially made and served in their paper cups can then be poured into your own cup. Whether or not they then throw away the original paper cup is another question. (In fact, this very same set of practices is exactly what happens when a customer brings their own cup to McDonald’s in Hong Kong to buy coffee. From what we’ve seen, the staff doesn’t throw away the paper cup in our presence. We just hope that the same briefly used cup is then given to the next person who orders the same drink.)

Besides Starbucks, other businesses are now discouraging customers from providing their own cups or containers. Also, the plastics industry association is capitalising on the moment, hoping to quash pending plastic bag bans or revoke existing ones. They’ve even written to the US Department of Health, lobbying the agency to make a public statement on the “health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics” and to promote the idea that “bans to these products [are] a public risk.”

Well, now—isn’t that sneaky.

To be honest, we at Equiply are not thrilled about the increased use of single-use plastics to transport food deliveries and restaurant takeaways, regardless of pressing circumstances. (We’re especially irked at how enduring takeaway rubbish has become second-nature now. Guilt, anyone?)

Here are a couple of ideas to help mitigate the boxy situation.

How to Order Food Delivery and Takeout Wisely

  1. Combine, combine. When you order your meal, see if you can ask nicely to have your meal packed into one single box. Instead of having one box for each food dish, let the restaurant know you don’t mind having things mixed up—even if it doesn’t make the food look presentable. Go ahead and live a little—let your sauces blend. If bowl food worked for Nigella Lawson, why not turn your takeout into comfort food? We’re all eating in our pajamas in front of the TV anyway.

  2. Request paper or aluminum containers. Now this one may only work for those cafes chic enough to stock paper boxes and bags, such as healthy salad places. Admittedly, only a few local restaurant chains in Hong Kong have totally switched to paper-based takeout-ware, so we’re aware the options here may be limited. However, we know it’s way more easy to find paper takeout containers in places like the US and UK. Why not take this opportunity to do some market research around your neighborhood and take note of which restaurants have invested in greener practices? Even if you only increase your patronage at the same place 1-2 times more per week just because they do use paper boxes, that’s still better than not doing anything for our planet at all. After all, the numbers really add up when you start piling all the Styrofoam containers, plastic and cellophane collected from a week’s worth of takeout. Don’t believe us? Give it a try and start collecting. And as it turns out, of all the types of takeout containers, aluminum is easiest for recycling plants to recycle.

  3. Repurpose with glee. While many homes in Asia can be quite small and limited on refuse-collecting space, we can think of many re-uses for those plastic takeout containers, especially if you have room under the kitchen sink. Got kids stuck at home who are restless? See if you can let them do some fingerpainting or handicrafts, using those plastic boxes. Frustrated with a messy pantry or bathroom medicine cabinet? Put those clear plastic containers to use in sorting out your bits and bobs. The beauty of using all those same-type, same-sized boxes for organising is that you can finally achieve a Mari-Kondo-like level of harmony!

And if none of the tips mentioned above sparked joy in you, you can always try this last resort: Ask the restaurant not to give you disposable utensils and plastic straws, when you place your food order. You’ll be spared more clutter at home.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Related Posts