Most people prefer reusable dinnerware – silverware, ceramic or steel plates and cutlery – over disposable dinnerware thinking the former is more eco-friendly and convenient to use than the latter. But is it really?
Without a doubt, reusable dinnerware is more eco-friendly when compared to single-use plastic products and food packaging. As the name implies, reusable dinnerware can be used several times, which means zero trash ends up in landfills. But when compared to compostable dinnerware, is reusable dinnerware still the better choice?
It depends on how these products are used. At a glance, reusable dinnerware seems like the better choice because it can be used repeatedly before it breaks. On the other hand, compostable disposables, like disposable wood plates and cutlery, could only be used once before they are discarded.
Seems wasteful, right? The truth is often surprising.
How Products are Rated According to Environmental Impact
Three performance indicators rate products according to their environmental impact. These indicators are: emission, natural resource use, and pollution:
- Emission: Gasses that pollute the air causing the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere that leads to global warming
- Natural Resource Use: What natural resources were used to create the product, such as mining, deforestation, etc.
- Pollution: Does the extraction and manufacturing of the product lead to the degradation of the natural environment, causing biodiversity loss?
When it comes to rating a product’s environmental impact, the energy input is used as the primary indicator because the energy consumption ties to virtually all other factors. To mine coal, natural sources are destroyed. Coal is burned to produce energy but burning leads to the emission of deadly gases – it’s a vicious cycle. Other factors, such as the social responsibility of the company producing it, are also considered when determining the eco-friendliness of a reusable or disposable product.
The Life-Cycle Analysis of Reusable and Compostable Dinnerware
When it comes to the environmental impact of a product, you can paint a different picture by looking beyond the “use” of the product and into its life cycle. To determine the eco-friendliness of any product, you have to focus on other variables, particularly the production, use, and post-use of a product:
- Production: what does it take to manufacture a product? When analyzing the environmental impact of a product, consider the input of energy and natural resources used to produce the said product. You have to consider the transportation of the raw materials and the making of the finished product. The emissions and other pollutants are also added to the equation.
- Use: How does the product affect the environment and its users? Does making the product affect human health? The lifespan of the product as well as its environmental impact are all considered to determine how eco-friendly it is.
- Post-Use: What happens after the product breaks? How do you dispose of it properly? How the disposal of the product affects the environment, the pollution it causes, as well as the emissions from disposing of the said product (broken down in landfills or incinerated) will affect its eco-friendliness. The overall cost of recycling the said product could also affect the environment.
Reusable dinnerware is made from different materials, some of which are quite energy intensive to extract. Steel, ceramic, plastic, porcelain, these raw materials are not only harder to acquire than recycled wood or renewal timber, they are also more expensive to process, assemble, pack, and transport.
To illustrate, Canadian researcher Martin Hocking found that ceramic mugs use a staggering 70% more energy to manufacture than all other types of disposable dinnerware materials including Styrofoam cups, disposable paper, and compostable disposables on a per cup basis. To make a reusable cup more eco-friendly than a disposable cup on an energy basis, it has to be reused 1,000 times otherwise, the cup takes immense extraction and manufacturing energy to produce.
Now this is where it gets complicated, to reuse a ceramic mug, it has to be washed. You can either wash it by hand or use a dishwasher. Either way, you’ll use water and soap to clean the mug, resources that take money and energy to use or make. According to Hocking, products with a longer lifespan use up more soap, water, and energy to reuse. Disposables, on the other hand, do not require soap and water because these products are not reusable, which add to the green factor of these products.
That’s not to say reusable dinnerware is not eco-friendly, far from it. But if you are truly committed to being environmentally friendly, you have to keep reusing the dinnerware that you have now and avoid hoarding more so you can reuse the dishes that you have several times. This will offset the energy that it took to make the plates. The fact is, the number of reusable dinnerware collected in the US makes disposables more eco-friendly simply because the dishes were not being used enough!
Using biodegradable soap is also recommended when it comes to washing the dishes because this soap won’t cause water pollution. And speaking of water, mind the volume of water you use when washing the dishes to avoid waste.
The Better Alternative: Backyard Compostable Disposables
Generally, reusable dinnerware is better than single-use plastic. However, if you are entertaining a crowd or you are hosting an event and you need more plates for guests, always choose the most eco-friendly option there is.
Backyard compostable disposables are even greener than plastic or paper disposables because these products require zero energy for proper disposal. While these products do require energy to manufacture, the raw materials are sourced from renewable timber. This adds to the green factor of the product.
In addition, backyard compostable products like ECO Homeware disposable wood plates are made with no trace of dye and harmful chemicals that could leach into the soil and pollute the waterways. The plates are not coated with plastic so these can be recycled or discarded without peeling the plastic coating off.
Because backyard compostable disposables are only used once, they do not require washing after use. You are not using water and soap to clean the plates, just bury the plates in the backyard for disposal.
Which Product is Kinder to the Environment?
Reusable dinnerware is more eco-friendly than disposables but only if used thousands of times. If you have to use disposable dinnerware, be sure to choose the most eco-friendly products. Disposable dinnerware made from backyard compostable raw materials is your best bet when entertaining a crowd.