Given the rapid, worldwide spread of COVID-19, all manner of reuse habits that just a few months ago might have been considered environmentally virtuous now invoke the same kind of germaphobic fear response as a public coughing fit. Renting clothes so you don’t have to buy new ones that you’ll only wear once or twice? Rent the Runway updated its frequently asked questions last week to reassure concerned customers that “there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted from soft surfaces like fabric or carpet to humans.” Shopping with a reusable bag to avoid single-use plastics? A local news station in Buffalo ran a segment warning viewers to wash or disinfect their bags between each use, citing research showing that a completely different type of virus can be transmitted from reusable bags to other parts of a grocery store via shoppers’ hands.
Reusing goods and packaging as many times as possible, instead of disposing of them and then buying new ones, is one of the greenest practices there is. It prevents energy and resources from being spent on manufacturing and shipping new stuff. It diverts old stuff from landfills and oceans. These facts are at the heart of the so-called zero-waste movement, which has spawned books, blogs, and package-free stores in recent years.
And there have been promising recent signs of a burgeoning “circular economy” — that is, a no- or low-waste system that encourages reuse rather than disposal. ThredUp, an online secondhand clothing store, grew from receiving 4 million clothing items for resale in 2014 to 21 million in 2018. In 2019, fast-casual chain Just Salad says it diverted 75,000 pounds of plastic from landfills with its $1 reusable bowls, which customers wash at home and then bring back to be filled with salad again. Last May, Terracycle launched Loop, an online store that sells groceries and household items in reusable packaging that shoppers return to Loop once they’re empty in exchange for a deposit.
But can the circular economy continue to grow during what some epidemiologists are already calling a pandemic? Reusable or secondhand items are unlikely to spread the novel coronavirus, as long as they’re washed or disinfected in between uses. But new items come with an aura of cleanliness, while reusable and secondhand goods often fight the perception of being unsanitary. The key to encouraging reuse at a time when coronavirus infection numbers are rising might be recognizing that neither stereotype is true.