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Monday, 4 January 2016

Reusable coffee mugs or disposable coffee cups? Reusable Shopping Bags? Concerns for food safety and environment health.

The environmental impact of disposable coffee cups and plastic shopping bags. What are the food safety concerns with reusable mugs and shopping bags?

by Jim Chan

What is the environmental impact of disposable paper coffee cups?

Disposable coffee cup is becoming the new plastic water bottle problem that filling up landfill sites. Million of disposable paper and styrofoam coffee cups are thrown away every day in Canada and is creating a huge amount of waste. 

The environmental impact arises from several sources

Paper cups are coated with plastic such as polystyrene that for preventing cups from degrading and leaking. Paper cups are made from wood pulp or paper. 

Styrofoam cups are made from oil-based chemical products such as polystyrene. Like most plastic products, fossil fuels are used in the product itself as well as in the process of manufacturing it. Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and can stay in landfill site for hundreds of years.

Disposable cups contain polyethylene can release methane gas when decomposing and can contribute to global warming.

Are coffee shops recycling their disposable cups?

Canada's largest coffee chains have faced criticism for the amount of waste created by
disposable cups. As a way to address these concerns, some companies have publicly made commitments to environmental responsibility, including in-store recycling bins for paper cups. 

Recent investigation by CBC's Marketplace indicated some coffee shop companies are misleading customers about what happens to cups collected in their in-store recycling bins, instead of recycling, they are sending them to landfills. Check out this article on CBC Marketplace Investigation.

Should we start using a reusable cup?

Simply switching to using a reusable coffee mug can be the first step to reducing the environmental  
impact and we can enjoy a coffee with virtually zero impact on waste and greenhouse gas production. 

Although reusable mugs have a bigger initial environmental impact than paper ones when they are first manufactured, over time, they become more resource-efficient than disposable cups. Since a reusable coffee mug is designed to be used about thousands of times in its life, it provides many years of use for the average daily coffee drinker. Reusable coffee mugs represent quite a reduction in its environmental impact compared with single use disposable cups.

What are the food safety concerns for office reusable coffee mugs?

According to a recent research by University of Arizona microbiologist Chuck Gerba, PhD Germs around the office, 20% of the coffee mugs tested were contaminated with fecal bacteria and 90% were covered in other germs. According to Dr.Gerba, most offices or coffee break rooms do not have a dishwasher or sinks for proper utensil washing. People may use towels or sponges to wipe the mugs, but they may be contaminated with bacteria and viruses. In some cases, the same sponge or towel that has just been used to wipe up dirty counter surfaces.

What to do about good coffee mug hygiene?

A bad habit is leaving the coffee mug unwashed on the desk or in the desk drawer, germ colonies will begin reproducing and grow immediately and by the next morning, the mug will be loaded with nasty germs.

One way to ensure the coffee mug is clean properly is to take it home and put it in the dishwasher or wash and sanitize in the kitchen sink. Every day would be ideal but in reality, how many of us would do this? If there is a sink in the office, be sure to wash the mug with hot water and soap, than rinse it well and dry it with a paper towel. Even better if there is a microwave oven in the office, after washing the mug, fill it with half a cup of water and heat it for a minute or two to kill as much germs as possible.

Other related link

How to avoid food poisoning at home.

What is the food safety risk for using reusable shopping bags?

A study published by The Journal of Infectious Diseases researcher investigated a norovirus outbreak 'A Point-Source Norovirus Outbreak Caused by Exposure to Fomites that Norovirus affecting 9 members of a soccer team'. Illness was associated with touching a reusable grocery bag containing food that was contaminated with fomites from a sick person in the bathroom Norovirus study. The study also illustrated in general, reusable shopping bag was one of the less obvious hazards in this outbreak. Many other studies done by researchers found that most reusable shopping bags harbour multiple bacteria, including E.coli found in some the tested bags. Let's don't panic yet.

Question: Reusable bags are good for the environment but are they healthy? 

In a quick survey at a grocery store on CityTV news clip on reusable shopping bags (please view Youtube video below), shoppers asked by the reporter admit knowing cross-contamination happens when meat, produce and precooked foods are placed in soiled bags. Some admit they don't wash their shopping bags regularly. 

Here are some food safety tips on proper use of the bags:
  • Clean and sanitize reusable shopping bags regularly, or if possible, after each use when raw meat, poultry are being stored.
  • Get more than one bag and label them as meat, produce, dairy, non-food items such as cleaning chemicals and laundry supplies.
  • Use a clear plastic bag for any items that may leak, such as prepacked meat & poultry.
  • Use shopping bags for carrying food only and not using them as gym bags to store shoes, gym clothes, diapers, chemicals, motor oil or gardening supplies.
  • Never leave bags with food in the car for prolong period of time, especially in warm weather as the heat can be a perfect incubation environment for pathogenic bacteria to multiply.

Related links on reusable shopping bags safety


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  6. Interesting ....... well written... Thanks for sharing this details....
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    1. In the light of the propsed levy on disposable cups, I was looking for a solution to the vendors problem of handling reusable cups and it's impact on food safety, particularly in premises where coffe and food are served. Have you any thoughts on this.

    2. Hi Jim Scott, thanks for the message. In general, reusable utensils such as coffee cups or mugs and food containers customers brought in to buy drinks (or food) are quit clean (with some exceptions). However, staff handling the reusable utensils can be compared to handling all other objects such as clearing tables with soiled utensils, raw food, dirty cloths (including money, which have shown to be contaminated with dirt & pathogens such as E. coli, fecal matter etc.) during a routine work day. Staff need to remember washing hands often especially after handling soiled objects (including reusable utensils), before preparing food etc. as hand washing is the best way to remove dirt and reduce bacteria load on hands. One thing I don’t like to see is a staff wearing gloves to do all kinds of tasks without changing gloves.

      I’ve advised operators to post signs to let customers know that “clean reusable utensils are accepted and staff have the right to refuse handling of soiled or dirty utensils…. etc”.

      I hope this info. is helpful?


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