SINGAPORE: When Julia Anna Deufel went to her regular coffee haunt in Bukit Timah recently with her reusable mug, she was not allowed to use it.
The 27-year-old was surprised as the store encourages such Bring Your Own (BYO) practices and sells its own mugs for this purpose. The store offers a discount for using such reusables as well.
"I was informed that they were not accepting BYO for hygiene reasons," Ms Deufel said.
Her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been unique. While some shops have eased their restrictions on reusables since Singapore exited a two-month “circuit breaker” period, others have kept to them.
In turn, the circuit breaker period, designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, led to an increase in disposable containers and cutlery usage, according to a survey released recently. An additional 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste, equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses, was generated from takeaway and delivery meals during the period, the study found.
The study involved six alumni students from the National University of Singapore’s Master of Science (Environmental Management) programme, who surveyed 1,110 households. The respondents were asked a set of multiple-choice and open ended questions, including the frequency of buying takeaway meals and ordering meals via delivery platforms before and during the circuit breaker. Respondents were also asked whether they opted for disposable containers and cutlery when ordering.
The increase comes despite the Government urging people to use their own clean containers to adopt more sustainable practices, when the only way to order food and drinks is to takeaway.
WHY REUSABLES ARE DISALLOWED AT SOME PLACES
CNA's checks with coffee shops like Dutch Colony Co and Starbucks showed that these outlets were not accepting reusable items as of Monday this week. At the stores, employees pointed to hygiene reasons for not allowing the use of these items.
In explaining the move, firms that responded to CNA also said that it was for hygiene reasons.
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A spokesperson for bubble tea chain Koi said that the firm stopped accepting reusable bottles and cups around the second week of March.
"Bottles and cups come into direct contact with a person’s mouth and it is common for traces of body fluids, like saliva, to remain and be in the bottles and cups after usage or even a quick rinse," he said.
He added that because employees cannot ascertain how each reusable item is washed, "every reusable bottle and cup introduced into our beverage preparation space is a potential for cross contamination".
Beverages are crafted close to one another in our operation space with the same set of craft wares, and cross-contamination would affect subsequent beverages, he said.
He added that it was “not operationally feasible” to do a full clean up on beverage preparation space after every reusable bottle or cup is used.
“This is the same principle as the required Food Safety & Hygiene measure, where (an) employee's personal bottle or cup must be stored in a designated space, away from the beverage preparation station for our customers," he said.
“Our objective is to protect all our customers and frontline employees. We will continue to review this temporary measure of not accepting reusable bottles and cups, while monitoring the Covid-19 situation."
Similarly, Sharetea said the decision to stop accepting reusable containers at its outlets was announced on Mar 22.
It was one way to protect employees at outlets, a spokesperson said.
“Whilst we welcome our customers to bring their own cups, we have no way of confirming if the container has been washed thoroughly prior to their visit. As our staff would have to handle the containers during preparation of drinks, we wanted to minimize the risk of any potential contamination instore,” she said.
While an increasing number of customers had been taking their own containers to the outlets, "we are at a point whereby hygiene and safety is of paramount importance, thus we can understand why BYO is now taking a step back during this pandemic.
“We would like to be conservative in our approach and try our best to minimize any potential risks as best as we can.”
Woobbee brand manager Benjamin Lim said that his stores also stopped allowing BYO in March to “protect both customers and staff” because staff cannot guarantee that the coronavirus is not on the reusable container.
But with dining-in being allowed again, he said that such reusables are likely to be allowed in July.
Some eateries have opted for a solution by offering the rental of reusable items through firms like barePack And Muuse.
Through these firms, consumers can use an app, place an order at the eatery, and scan a QR code to retrieve a reusable item. barePack has signed on 60 cafes and restaurants, while Muuse has signed on more than 40 food and beverage outlets.
Founder of barePack Roxane Uzureau-Zhu said that people may be leaning towards such greener solutions as they are being confronted by the plastic waste they generate in a “new way”.
She added that the convenience of not having to remember to leave home with a reusable item may be making more of them lean towards solutions such as her firm’s.
IS THERE REALLY A RISK?
In response to queries from CNA, the Singapore Food Agency said it encourages everyone to bring their own clean containers at eateries. This would reduce the amount of waste generated and ease the demand for disposable containers. In turn, retailers should allow their customers to use their own reusable containers.
SFA said that contact with personal or reusable food containers is “no different from contact with other common touch surfaces” like lift buttons and door knobs. “There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through food,” a spokesperson added.
However, she cautioned that if consumers bring their own reusable containers for takeaway, they should ensure that the container, including its exterior, is washed thoroughly with detergent and water and is clean before use and that they should wash hands thoroughly before touching takeaway container and before eating.
It is “more important” that individuals exercise good social responsibility and personal hygiene by doing things like not sharing food or drinks with others, and washing hands with soap and water before eating and going to the toilet, she added.
Infectious diseases expert Leong Hoe Nam, who also practises BYO and has faced some rejection from eateries, said that they could be responding with fear instead of logic.
“The risk is extremely remote of COVID-19 spreading through reusable containers,” he said. He also stressed that washing hands regularly will help to contain any risk.
He added that users of reusable items should make sure their itemis clean, and that putting containers in a sealed reusable bag would make BYO even safer.
“A rinse of the container will wash out any virus,” he said.
Dr Serena Caucci, senior research associate at United Nations University (UNU-FLORES) based in Germany said that contact with a reusable container from an infected person could theoretically allow for the transmission of droplets from the reusable to the next person that handles the container.
Her research interests include contaminants of emerging concern and sustainable development.
However, she said: “The use of reusable items is unlikely to spread the coronavirus, if both vendors and customers take proper hygiene measures like washing the containers thoroughly, for example, in the dishwasher or disinfecting, in between the use of these items.”
If hygiene measures are not respected, the reusable container could become contaminated, she added.
“As with many other items handled by infected individuals, the droplets on the surfaces of the reusable boxes or cups could enter the eateries’ process and lead to the transfer of the droplets in the food delivery chain, posing a risk to the next customers or the workers themselves.”
Whether eateries should allow the use of reusables is not straightforward, she said, “especially when we must consider personal habits and hygiene awareness at the individual level”.
“Epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts have stressed enough that washing hands is the biggest priority when speaking of precautionary measures. If we think about the risk of contracting COVID-19 or transmitting it to others, there is a higher chance that this occurs due to poor hand hygiene practices compared to the use of reusable containers,” she added.
However, she said that the risk could be linked to the diversity of individual standards of hygiene among the population.
“The impossibility of knowing the sanitation standards applied to reusables generates thus difficulties in the acceptance of the “bring your own” approach,” she said.
Eateries therefore have the right to be concerned, she said. However, she said that under the current circumstances, increased hygiene requirements and measures should already be enforced in eateries, covering also the washing technology of utensils and standards put in place for dishwashing personnel as recommended by the World Health Organisation.
“The odds of contracting the virus in this way are low but it is sensible to take precautions. We must not forget that beyond the use of reusables, other actions like handling cash or handling the packaging of single-use boxes could anyway have the same role in helping spread the virus,” she said.