But now, the world is changed by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and most of us are sequestered at home, worrying about virus exposure. Our lives are turned upside down, and the usual rules just don’t apply anymore!
Does that mean we should switch to disposable dishes, disposable plastic utensils, individually-packed convenience foods, and wearing disposable plastic gloves in the grocery store?
Let’s take a deep breath and think this through.
The Germs Are Coming from Outside the House!
This is true of any kind of infectious agent–coronavirus, other viruses, bacteria–if there isn’t any in your house now, the only way for it to get there is by coming in from outside. That’s why staying home is the best way to limit exposure!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tell us that the main way coronavirus spreads is through droplets in the air exhaled, coughed, or sneezed by an infected person within 6 feet of you. It does linger on surfaces somewhat, but that’s not the main way it travels between people.
If someone in your family has to go out to buy supplies or work in an essential industry, right after coming home is the time for disinfection. Change clothes and shower. Anything you brought home can be set aside for 24 hours, just to be sure any virus on it has died–or if it needs to go into the refrigerator, you could wipe down the outside of the package with rubbing alcohol. We’ve been doing these things, but CDC and other experts say they aren’t really necessary. They do make us feel better though!
All the emphasis on hand-washing and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces in your home is serving three functions:
- Killing any coronavirus you brought in from outside;
- Cleaning up other viruses and bacteria to reduce your risk of getting sick with something else, which would wear down your immune system and make you more vulnerable to the coronavirus if you do encounter it;
- Getting you into sanitation habits while your family is healthy so that if someone does get sick, you’re already being careful and may be able to avoid spreading it around your whole family or into the outside world.
I managed to get sick with something else on the second day our schools were closed! I called my doctor’s office and was assured that my symptoms indicated some other virus, which would just get better on its own in a week or so. It’s actually lasted more than 3 weeks, which is annoying–but the timing was perfect for motivating us to start taking infection control seriously!
Thanks to sanitation and my staying alone in my room for the first two days, I avoided infecting the rest of my family.
Does Dish Soap Kill Coronavirus?
Even if someone in your household is sick with COVID-19, CDC says, “Avoid sharing personal items like utensils, food, and drinks.” CDC also says, “Handle any used dishes, cups/glasses, or silverware with gloves and wash with hot water or in a dishwasher. Clean hands after taking off gloves or handling used items.” [The wording of that second statement changed slightly. Updated with the current statement April 13, 2020.]
All you need to do is act like the sick person is contagious, wash dishes, and wash hands. You don’t have to throw away the dishes! Soap and scrubbing destroy and remove coronavirus.
And notice that CDC’s statement applies to any used dishes or utensils–disposable or reusable. A virus can get on your hand from a plastic fork on its way to the trash just as easily as from a real fork on its way to the sink. (This is one of the reasons restaurants are closed to dine-in service: so that staff doesn’t have to handle customers’ used dishes. It’s not because restaurant dishwashers can’t kill the virus!)
My family stepped up our dish practices a couple of weeks before the schools closed here in Pennsylvania. When my 15-year-old was still having his friends over to our house almost every day, he pointed out that we were in the habit of storing “gently used” dishes that we could use again (like a water glass or rinsed-out cereal bowl) next to the sink, where people might be scattering droplets when they washed their hands and then reached for the towel. Also, those dishes were sometimes getting reused by a different person than used them the first time.
We decided instead to keep “gently used” dishes at our places at the table and only reuse our own. Because we have limited space on the table, this led to fewer uses of each dish before putting it in the dishwasher. We’ve been running the dishwasher almost twice as often as usual.
Feeling like there’s no time to do dishes while you’re working from home and homeschooling the kids? Teach the kids to wash dishes! It’s a crucial life skill, so check off the “home ec” box on your agenda!
My first child started washing dishes at 15 months old, standing on his high chair in front of the sink. I gave him his own dishcloth and just made sure I washed each item myself after he’d had a chance. I said, “Keep the water in the sink,” about a million times, but he did learn, and he didn’t break many dishes at all! With time, his playing with the dishes and cloth in the soapy water became more and more like real, helpful washing, as he imitated what I did.
My second child has been less interested in doing all the things I do, but “help me wash the dishes” is still an effective way to keep her busy while teaching her how it’s done. She’s in kindergarten now and is pretty competent at washing all sides of each dish.
Our Water Supply Is Safe!
Katie already addressed why you don’t need bottled water for this crisis in her big post of home-cooking and natural-remedy tips for the pandemic. The coronavirus does not live in tap water, and there is no reason to think our water-treatment plants or plumbing network will be threatened in any way.
Eco-Friendly Lunches During the Pandemic
If you weren’t following Katie’s or my tips for packing low-waste lunches, you may have been buying individual packages of things like yogurt, crackers, or fruit snacks to pop into your kids’ lunches for school or your own lunches for work. Now that you’re not going to school or work for a while, it’s a perfect time to rethink how much garbage goes into each lunch!
This time also gives you a break from providing the class snack when it’s your child’s turn. Many schools require snacks to be in sealed packages, which limits your options (although Katie has some good ideas!), but you don’t have to follow that rule at home.
Check the expiration dates on any single-packaged food you already have. If it’s good for six months or more, just set it aside until school resumes! If it needs to be eaten, consider donating it to a local charity that is feeding needy people during the crisis–most are accepting donated packaged food, and individual servings are especially useful in the “grab and go” meals that many organizations have substituted for the hot meals they’d normally serve.
What About Take-Out Meals?
It’s true that this is no time to argue with restaurants about what kind of dishes they use! They are doing the best they can to protect their workers with the supplies they have. Most local policies for controlling the pandemic forbid restaurants from filling customers’ travel mugs or washable containers. Managers have no spare time for coordinating a transition from plastic to paper products. Set aside your activism on this issue until after the pandemic!
To reduce the amount of single-use plastic generated by take-out, just don’t get take-out. Stay home and cook!
If you want to support your local economy by purchasing an occasional meal from a local restaurant, accept that some single-use plastic will be part of the deal. Wash out and reuse or recycle what you can–but be sure to check your local recycling policy carefully, as many curbside collection programs do not accept “clamshell” boxes or “tubs” or #6 plastic. (Recycle This Pittsburgh is a great resource for understanding what is and isn’t recyclable here in Pittsburgh, PA.)
…or stick with ordering pizza or other foods packed in cardboard. When ordering, tell them what you don’t need: disposable utensils, sauce packets, plastic-wrapped fortune cookies, whatever that restaurant typically throws into an order. Not only will you reduce single-use plastic, you’ll also save restaurants a little bit of money in this trying time.
Remember, every person’s little bits of being more careful add up with others to help us all pull through this together!
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Save the Plastic Gloves for Health Care Workers!
Some people we’ve seen when we go out in public seem to think that disposable plastic gloves magically make their hands clean. It’s true that your hand inside the glove stays as clean as it was when you put it in there, but the outside of the glove gets contaminated. It is not safe to touch your face while you’re wearing disposable gloves!
Remember, coronavirus spreads mostly through droplets in the air, not by hands touching contaminated surfaces. If you’re actually caring for someone with COVID-19 in your home, gloves are recommended only when you’re handling the person’s bodily fluids–washing your hands is more important than covering them.
Health care workers need disposable plastic gloves not so much to protect them from this virus as to protect them from other infections that do spread by skin contact or by getting into the bloodstream through broken skin, like HIV. All the usual risks of caring for sick people still exist!
So if you’re not caring for sick people yourself, don’t hoard the plastic gloves!
Would wearing gloves in the grocery store help you remember not to touch your face because your hands feel weird? Try wearing reusable gloves and washing them frequently. If they’re waterproof (like rubber dish-washing gloves), you can wash your hands with gloves on, then take them off and wash your bare hands. Even knitted or fabric gloves like you’d wear in the winter could cue you to be careful with your hands, and then you can scrub the gloves in the sink with hand soap or dish detergent and hang them up to dry.
Single-use plastic items like gloves, IV bags, and tubing are crucial to doctors and nurses caring for the big influx of patients during this crisis! Some medical equipment needs to be single-use to prevent various infections from spreading between patients and needs to be plastic because that’s the best material. Manufacturers need to increase the production of medical equipment to meet the increased demand.
Let’s minimize purchases of single-use plastic stuff we don’t really need so that our health care workers can get the plastic medical gear they need to heal us and our loved ones!!!
What About Grocery Bags?
It’s true that taking your reusable bags to the store means those bags will touch the grocery items that may have been coughed on by other people.
But laundry detergent destroys coronavirus! Just put your cloth tote bags in the washing machine right after you put away the groceries. If you’re worried about wearing out your bags by washing so often, put the used bags aside away from your family, and any virus on the bags will die by the time you’re going to the store again.
There’s no reason to think single-use plastic or paper bags will be any cleaner. After all, the supply of bags is stored right next to the checkout line, where the cashier or bagger or other customers might cough on them before you get those bags. From there, the disposable bags will touch all the things your reusable bags would touch!
Some stores are asking customers with reusable bags not to put those bags on the checkout counter and not to expect employees to handle your bags. Instead, do it the ALDI way: Put your purchases back into the cart, move out of the way, and then load up your bags.
In fact, it’s best to roll your cart out into the fresh air, away from the crowd, before you take the time to move groceries from cart to bags. If you’re driving to the store, just leave your bags in the trunk and do your bagging there. If you walk to the store, keep your bags hanging on your shoulder the whole time, so that your bags never touch the shopping cart.
(If you do bring home single-use plastic bags, remember that they are recyclable but not in curbside collection! Set them aside a few days to let the virus die, then reuse them or find a plastic-film recycling bin.)
A Season of Fasting
The COVID-19 outbreak in the United States hasn’t overlapped exactly with Lent, and at the time I’m writing this it looks unlikely that the social distancing will be over before Easter. It feels like an extra-long Lent! This time of abstaining from so many of our usual activities can function like fasting to help us rethink and refocus.
Now is a time to be careful of this one virus that is picked up by getting close to infected people. Now is a time to stay home with our closest family and do things together–including caring for our dishes and laundry together. Even if a family member is infected, we don’t have to destroy everything she touched! Soap works. Let’s be grateful for that and use it diligently to care for our things and our loved ones.