New state laws allow more reusable containers. Is Washington next?

by Rebekah Denn

This article was originally published in March 2020

The concept is simple: Reduce waste by bringing reusable food containers to markets and restaurants.

In practice, it hasn’t been simple at all. Health codes around the U.S. bar customers from using their own containers in many situations, with varying guidelines that different businesses and local authorities interpret in different ways. Some business owners say sanitation requirements prevent them even from refilling travel mugs with coffee, while many others encourage customers to bring their own cups. Depending on the region, food carts and festivals might face different rules than brick-and-mortar businesses. Codes might allow reusable containers for bulk oats and nuts and raisins but add restrictions for a granola mix containing all those ingredients.

“Every time I go out and give a talk on plastics, people say…‘Why is this so confusing?’” said Heather Trim, executive director of the nonprofit organization Zero Waste Washington.

The short answer is that public health concerns about food-related illnesses take precedence over environmental goals. Morally and legally, it’s hard to argue against the “better safe than sorry” approach, especially when guidelines are open to interpretation.

The broader question is whether food safety can be properly managed while also balanced against other priorities—especially as the hidden costs of extra packaging become clearer, and it’s seen as a public health crisis in its own right. Such change requires efforts from governments, industry and consumers alike.

When it comes to reusable containers, Washington is poised to become a leader in shifting that balance. The state Board of Health will soon consider a proposal to give establishments the option of allowing customers to bring in clean containers to fill, refill or reuse in most situations. (In some situations, such as the salad bar, an employee would have to fill the container rather than having it be self-serve. For full details, click here.) Businesses would not be required to allow the reusable containers but would have a far easier and clearer path to doing so if they chose. Some scenarios that previously required health department waivers would be allowed under the new code.

Overall, the move has been supported by Zero Waste Washington as well as PCC (see the policy column in October’s Sound Consumer) and other organizations and businesses. It’s one of several new efforts around the country promoting reusable containers. A 2019 California bill made it easier to use reusable takeout cups and containers at restaurants, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, while also newly allowing reusable containers at events and festivals. New York legislators proposed a bill recently to specifically allow customers to bring reusable cups to cafes for drinks, and said in news reports that they want to move on to a reusable container law.

History and risk

“If you look through the food safety code on other topics, everything is in there to help minimize risk. But there’s virtually no way to eliminate risk,” said Trim.

The situation isn’t limited to reusable containers, or even to the food industry. As single-use materials became cheaper and more plentiful, many industries began relying on them to prevent contamination. Examples range from the disposable syringes used in health care settings to the single-use plastic gloves required for food service workers (though some studies suggest requiring gloves can reduce food safety rather than improve it). Outbreaks of foodborne illness in recent decades—and better procedures for pinpointing their sources—led to standardized prevention protocols and tighter regulations.

For food, tensions between safety and environmental sustainability exist at many levels from farm to table.

“Effective strategies to prevent foodborne outbreaks are needed, but there are many approaches to minimize risk; not all are equal in impact on people and nature,” researchers wrote in the journal BioScience, examining regulations imposed after a 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to California-grown spinach. “There is a pressing need to weigh options with respect to their unintended consequences beyond the rightful concern of food safety.”

A current research project on the topic in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems reviews several such conflicts and compromises: For instance, researchers described farmers removing valuable habitat to prevent wild animals from carrying pathogens into fields, increasing erosion and harming biodiversity and pollinator pathways.

Concerns over water safety have discouraged use of recycled water on farms and encouraged the use of sanitizing agents, particularly chlorine, which may have cumulative environmental impacts, they wrote. And “an abundance of food safety caution may also have an effect on rates of food waste, as producers and their buyers add potential contamination to the list of reasons to reject and destroy food products.” There’s even the question of whether we can be too clean for our own health, with increasing concern that too sterile an environment has negative effects on children’s developing immune systems.

As far as reusable containers are concerned, new rules allowing them were by far the most common request when the state board asked for public input on updating its food safety rules, said Susan Shelton, the state food safety specialist who’s led public meetings on the topic.

As one commenter wrote the board, consumers “have a moral imperative to bring their own reusable containers to the store to reduce waste generally and plastic waste specifically. Bringing your own containers must not only be legal, but actively encouraged, by government, corporations, environmental groups and the like.”

Another wrote that “I am a huge fan of bringing my own containers…It feels like a tiny victory in a battle against the plastic juggernaut, but it is something our individual family can do.”

The debate came up now because states rely on the federal Food and Drug Administration code to guide their food safety laws, a code that was first published in 1993 and is now updated every four years. Washington state law requires consideration of the latest version when adopting new food safety rules.

Earlier revisions hadn’t generated much input from the public, Shelton said. But recently there have been calls for change, especially since weaknesses in the global recycling system encouraged more interest in the “reduce, reuse” part of the conservation mantra to “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

From the Board of Health’s perspective, the chief worry about allowing customers to bring their own containers is that people could get sick through cross-contamination from home containers that haven’t been adequately cleaned. Salad bar tongs used to fill a contaminated home container, for instance, could spread bacteria back to the salad bar and make other customers sick, which is why even the updated proposals include restrictions there.

Is the contamination risk significant? Bill Marler, arguably the country’s most prominent food safety attorney, said he’s never heard of illnesses or related litigation involving customers who used refillable containers. Shelton and Trim also weren’t aware of any cases.

Marler noted, though, that existing data may not be that relevant: the odds of illness could rise if the practice becomes more common. He can also picture new arguments over where a foodborne illness originated when more scenarios include reusable containers. Being “a control freak” who takes strict precautions, he’d suggest businesses use compostable containers instead. (In addition to supporting the new laws, PCC switched to compostable deli containers last year as part of its goal for a deli free of petroleum-based plastics by 2022.)

In a somewhat comparable situation with unknown risks, major outbreaks did not come to pass. In 2010 researchers tested cloth shopping bags for the presence of bacteria. Such bags have become vastly more common in the past decade since municipalities began banning single-use plastic bags.

The researchers found “large numbers of bacteria” in reusable shopping bags, including finding E. coli in 8% of the bags they tested, according to an article in the journal Food Protection Trends. They suggested reusable bags were a significant public health risk, and recommended states require printed instructions indicating the bags must be cleaned or bleached between uses, along with public education campaigns about the risk. The idea never gained traction. There’s also been no onslaught of illnesses linked to reusable bags, though there was a 2010 norovirus incident when soccer players got sick after eating snacks from a reusable bag that had been stored in a bathroom.

Allowing the containers may sound like a small change, but it took significant work to devise a sound regulation that Board of Health staff could support, with many details to consider.

Glass containers don’t pose a risk of leaching chemicals, for instance, but could be dangerous to customers if they break: The board has to consider whether they should be allowed in stores. Rules for shelf-stable foods like bulk nuts and pasta are less stringent than those for so-called “hazardous” foods that must be kept in specific temperature zones.

“Our biggest concern is, how can we make sure we are setting the industry…and consumers up to succeed on this one,” Shelton said.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of concern nationally and in the state about waste reduction. We’re trying to find avenues where we can assist, and this is definitely one of them. We do think (reusing containers) can be safe, but we are going to have to provide guidelines people are going to be able to follow.”


For more information

A public hearing on proposed changes to the state food safety rules is expected this summer. For details click here.

To learn about a new innovation in bulk packaging at PCC, see the article “Behind the bulk” in the March/April 2020 Sound Consumer.

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