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Dear Wally Waste-Not,

I recently went to the grocery store and brought my reusable bags but was told that I could not use them or even bring them in the store! What can I do during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep up my good zero waste goals and habits?

Healthy Intentions


Dear Healthy,

These are perplexing times when our daily routines have been disrupted and reusable items are being refused for health and safety concerns. Some coffee shops, including Starbucks stores, were early to recognize the potential to spread COVID-19 by contact through reusable items and temporarily suspend taking customers’ reusable cups to refill behind the counter on March 4th (thankfully they continue to offer a discount for simply showing your empty cup to promote maintaining the habit of bringing it with you). It is not surprising that retailers have followed suit with refusing our reusable bags for the time being.

The good news is that you may still use reusable bags if you follow a few guidelines established by CalOSHA to protect workers and customers, but come prepared to bag your own items. Here are some steps to follow at the grocery store or any retailer you visit:

  • Keep your bags in your shopping cart and let the cashier know you will be using your own bags. Do not place bags on the conveyor belt or counter.
  • Maintain physical distancing. Be sure to stay a minimum of 6 feet away from store personnel and other customers.
  • Bag your items into the cart, or have the items placed back into your cart and bag them at the car. The latter here (bagging at your car) may be required at some places where reusable bags are not even allowed in the door, as Wally experienced recently at Costco.

It’s always good practice to wash your bags regularly, but it is particularly important to do so now. Soap destroys the COVID-19 virus and prevents its spread through contact to your home or car.  

If you opt to have the retailer bag your items in their bags, they may do so without the usual per-bag charge as the State requirement to charge for bags has been temporarily suspended during the pandemic protocols. Remember, heavier reusable plastic bags and paper bags can be reused, so save them to reuse later! Besides reusing them for shopping, they are ideal for bagging up reusable items for donation.

Besides using your reusable bags, you could also work toward your zero waste goals by letting restaurants know you can bag your own take-out orders, and that you don’t need their single-use disposables like utensils, napkins, straws or condiments when ordering food for take-out or delivery.

While at home, if you have extra time on your hands, try your crafting skills to make reusable cloth napkins and cleaning cloths from old t-shirts and textiles to eliminate single-use disposable waste.

Save your CRV beverage cans and bottles for future redemption. While California has temporarily suspended enforcement of bottle and can take-back requirements, local retailers and recycling centers may determine whether or not to close or stop redeeming CRV during this time. Call ahead before bringing CRV containers for redemption. Opting for the cash value instead of recycling the containers curbside could be helpful if household budgets are tighter.

Along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, bottled water was flying off the shelves when the shelter-in-place orders were issued. Why? Perhaps it is a knee-jerk reaction to emergency preparation as we are conditioned to keep supplies for earthquakes and fires when utilities may be compromised, but this is not one of those emergencies. Save that bottled water for later; our water supplies are safe and there’s no reason to create that extra waste from plastic bottles.

Thank you for doing your part to zero waste during shelter in place! For more ideas, check out the 50 ways to make every day Earth Day (and other tips) from Protect Your Central Coast.

Stay safe and healthy!