Skip to content (press enter)


How to Reopen Restaurants While Safely Using Reusables

During the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the Surfrider Foundation’s primary focus continues to be the health and safety of our communities, volunteers, members and supporters. We are working to keep our network updated with science-based information to make informed decisions as the country begins to slowly reopen the economy. 


Let’s start with what we know to be true. We know the COVID-19 virus mainly spreads from close, person-to-person contact, through respiratory droplets in the air (after a sneeze, cough, or exhale). While there have not yet been any cases confirmed to have been caused by the touching of contaminated surfaces, health experts caution that touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your eye, nose, or mouth could potentially be a method of disease transmission. We also know that COVID-19 seemingly survives in a transmittable form on all surfaces, including plastic. Therefore, reusable foodware, such as ceramic dishware and metal utensils, that are properly cleaned and sanitized are just as safe as single-use foodware. In fact, reusable foodware is perhaps capable of being even cleaner than disposable products, which are not often sanitized prior to consumer use. This is good news for our Ocean Friendly Restaurants who commit to using only reusable foodware for onsite dining. A recent statement, signed by over 125 health experts, also outlines these points and stresses that, “reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

The plastics industry has taken advantage of public fear around COVID-19 and used it to disseminate false information around the safety of reusables vs. single-use. They have lobbied many federal agencies and members of Congress as an opportunistic way to increase the sale of single-use plastics. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has even released guidelines encouraging single-use disposables over reusable foodware. This directly contradicts their statement that surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads” and is instead “thought to spread mainly from close contact from person-to-person.” This unnecessary emphasis on single-use disposables further outlines the need for fact-based guidelines that address restaurant reopenings with a focus on how to safely use reusable foodware. 

We’ve seen what the reliance on single-use foodware does to our planet and our people. From the streets and beaches burdened by single-use litter, to fenceline communities near oil refineries and ethane crackers, to the frontline workers touching contaminated foodware at recycling facilities, to the communities living near landfills and incinerators, to the potential health effects of finding microplastics in our food and our bodies - these are all perpetuated by the use of single-use plastic foodware. We must address this current crisis while also being mindful of these long-term issues. This pandemic has revealed the need for a more modern, universal reuse system to be put into place to ensure our shopping, dining and takeout experiences put both us and the environment at minimal risk. With regards to dine-in restaurants, most were already implementing sufficient standards for sanitizing reusable foodware prior to COVID-19. It’s single-use items that leave much to be desired. 

It’s disheartening to hear the plastics industry tout their single-use products as safer and healthier than reusables. When it comes to public health, the real concern should be focused on microplastics, phthalates, and the slew of harmful side effects that come with consuming products out of plastic. It is our goal to provide up-to-date guidance based on facts and science while pointing to real-world models as examples.

Proper Sanitation, Handling, & Physical Distancing

  • The EPA lists best practices on their website for effectively cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, which also includes a list of EPA-registered disinfectants.

  • The FDA also lists extensive recommendations that include items such as discontinuing operations, such as buffets, that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers. They encourage spacing between customers and emphasize the need to wash, rinse, and sanitize food contact surfaces, dishware, utensils, food preparation surfaces, and beverage equipment after every use.

  • The National Restaurant Association recommendations include requiring the person in charge of foodservice be a certified food safety manager, eliminating table presets, sanitizing reusable menus, and installing touchless hand sanitation stations and sneeze guards where needed. Face coverings and employee temperature checks are also listed as suggestions.

  • Regardless of whether foodware is reusable or single-use, restaurants should be careful to store foodware in a sanitized manner and develop a protocol for handling foodware from the kitchen to the customer while avoiding cross-contamination. This should include avoiding pre-setting tables. Restaurant managers should work with their staff to develop a game plan that minimizes the need for multiple staff to come in contact with a meal and the associated foodware as it goes from prep to consumption.

  • Post full menus online to allow customers to view from their own device. If menus are needed onsite, consider using a chalkboard or other large display instead of handing out individual menus. Avoid the need for disposable menus by collecting and properly sanitizing any that are circulated to customers after each use.

  • Condiments and seasonings, such as salt and pepper, should be provided only upon request and ideally served in reusable ramekins that are filled at the time of request. Properly clean and sanitize ramekins after each use.

Consumer-Owned Reusables, Delivery, & Payment

  • One area of concern that may require additional consideration is filling consumer-owned reusables. However, solutions have already been introduced and simply need wide-spread implementation. Just Salad, a New-York-City-based restaurant chain, allows customers to bring back their reusable container to be refilled for a free topping. Their system involves a sanitized tray and tongs to collect the container, a separate mixing bowl to create their order, and a contactless transfer of the order into their container. New Zealand has also allowed reusable cups to be filled at coffee shops ensuring contactless refills by having the cup placed on a sanitized surface by the customer, pouring in the ordered beverage, and re-sanitizing the surface once the cup is removed by the customer.

  • Even when it comes to food delivery, there are a number of excellent models in place that prove reusables can be a safe and effective option. For example, Dispatch Goods, a reusable container system for takeout and to-go orders, has completed a number of successful pilots involving supplying restaurants with stainless steel containers which are then collected by Dispatch employees, undergo a three-stage sanitization process, and are returned to the restaurants. Other prime examples include Cup Collective, Just Salad, RCup, Vessel, DeliverZero, GO Box, among others. These systems are already active in cities ranging from San Francisco, Boulder, New York, Berkeley, Portland, and Boston. All of these systems have carefully thought out sanitation procedures that comply with health and safety codes. They also often involve minimum points of contact between sanitation and the customer, unlike most disposables. 

  • In general, drive-through, delivery, or curbside pick-up options and prioritizing outdoor seating are highly recommended. Don’t forget to provide utensils and condiments upon request; many customers are taking their food back home so they likely won’t need them. We've also partnered with Postmates so you can now search “Ocean Friendly” in the app to find an Ocean Friendly Restaurant near you! 

  • Perhaps the biggest area of concern comes when it’s time to pay the bill. Cash is notorious for carrying germs while pin pads and shared pens are not much better. Contactless payment options provide a way forward that avoids the exchange of potentially contaminated paper/plastic/coin currency and eliminates the need for communal pin pads. 

Despite industry’s claims, there are no studies that point to  single-use products being more sanitary than reusables.  What we do know is that properly sanitizing reusable items will kill the virus, which is harder to do with single-use items. There is a need for additional research on the means by which COVID-19 is likely to be transmitted and the Surfrider Foundation is working closely with scientists and with other members of the Break Free From Plastic movement to stay up to date on currently available studies.

More than 650 restaurants across the country have already committed to reducing their single-use plastic impact by becoming an Ocean Friendly Restaurant. These restaurants understand that healthy profit margins and sustainable practices are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they often save money over time by making the switch to reusables. Learn more about becoming an Ocean Friendly Restaurant or find one near you by visiting our Ocean Friendly Restaurants homepage.