What’s the most sustainable type of disposable cups, cutlery and plates you can buy?
The hard truth is, there’s no such thing as a sustainable disposable product.
The nature of anything disposable is that a lot of energy and resources go into making a product that’s only used once. Also, disposable cups, cutlery and plates should always go in the trash, never in the compost or recycling. No matter what they’re made from or what the label says.
Why reusable dishware is the greenest option
The biggest environmental impact of disposables happens before you buy the product. The majority of a product’s impact—energy, resources, carbon emissions—come from sourcing the materials, manufacturing and transportation.
An example carbon footprint of disposable packaging (adapted from Eco-Products website)
Because reusable cups, cutlery and dishware are used thousands of times in a typical restaurant setting, even when factoring in dishwashing, they use far less energy, water and resources over their lifetime than would be needed to make, transport and dispose of thousands of their disposable counterparts.
Reusable dishware, even if only offered to customers for on-site use, is the best environmental choice. Learn how to make the switch.
When using disposables, what to consider
There is no “best” disposable product. Each product’s environmental impact varies depending on factors such as material (paper, plastic, plants), how it’s manufactured, how lightweight or heavy it is, and how it’s packaged and transported.
The only way to know if one product is environmentally better than another is to run a full Life Cycle Assessment for each and compare the impacts of carbon emissions, energy, water, and pollution. For businesses that don’t have the time or funds to invest in that research, here are some general tips:
1. Aim for “less stuff”
Less stuff means less environmental impact, so use as little packaging as possible, or choose lighter weight products that are made with less (often thinner) plastic or paper. For example:
- Using thinner plastic produce bags still gets the job done, but with less plastic.
- Instead of offering pre-bundled disposable cutlery and napkins, let customers choose which items they want.
But only reduce packaging to the point where it can still protect the food from damage or spoiling. The carbon footprint of the food is often dramatically larger than the packaging, so the top priority is preventing the food from going to waste.
2. Look for products made from recycled materials
Products made from recycled materials are almost always environmentally better than those made from virgin content – within the same material type. If you’re looking for a paper drink cup, a recycled-content paper cup is better than a virgin paper cup. The same applies if you’re looking for a plastic drink cup: recycled plastic is better than virgin plastic. The higher the percentage of recycled content, the better.
But if you’re looking for a drink cup and are considering both plastic and paper versions, it’s less clear, since there are so many variations in how paper and plastic are made. It might be that a recycled paper cup has a larger carbon footprint than a virgin plastic one (or vice versa). To know for sure, you’d need a Life Cycle Assessment comparison of each product.
3. Avoid labels that cause confusion
Avoid products whose labels lead customers and staff to make “best intention” mistakes that cause problems for Portland’s recycling and compost systems.
Products labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are not allowed in compost in Portland: They don’t always break down in the compost, don’t add nutrient value, and often lead to more plastics of all types contaminating the compost and the farms and gardens where the compost is used. (The only exception to this rule is compostable bags used to collect and transport food waste).
When people see the “compostable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in the compost, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the compost facility. Read why Oregon compost facilities do not want compostable packaging.
“Compostable” products are also not allowed in recycling. They’re designed to break down, which is the opposite of what’s needed to make new, durable plastic products.
Products labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” should go in the trash. However, while some manufacturers promote their products’ ability to break down in the landfill, when things break down in the landfill, they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas – so what sounds like a good thing actually isn’t.
Additionally, "compostable" products can be worse for the environment than non-compostable products, due to their being made from biobased materials, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation . And plastics labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are unlikely to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, as it is not clear that they readily break down in a marine environment .
Biobased (plant-based) label
Biobased packaging is often promoted as an alternative to plastic packaging, which is derived from fossil fuels. But many of the currently available biobased materials are made from crops, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation.
In research comparing biobased products to non-biobased products, biobased products had a higher negative environmental impact over half the time.
To-go food packaging is not recyclable in Portland: Disposable cups, cutlery, dishware and other to-go boxes and containers are all trash, regardless of what they’re made of (plastic, paper, bamboo, etc.). The only exceptions to this rule are round plastic tubs, which are sometimes used for soup or deli foods, and tin or metal containers.
When people see the “recyclable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in their recycling bin, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the recycling facilities.
4. Remember the bigger picture
Packaging is often top of mind for customers, because they’re the ones that dispose of it. But the environmental impact of packaging is far less than the environmental impact of food.
The most impactful thing customers and businesses can do is make climate friendly food choices (more vegetables and whole grains, less meat and dairy) and to make the most of the food we buy (avoid wasted food through thoughtful purchasing, preparation and storage).
Still confused? We get it.
If you have more questions, let us know, and we’ll try to answer your questions.
You’re also welcome to dig into research about the environmental impacts of packaging from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, from which our information is sourced.
If you want to compare different products by their Life Cycle Assessments, there are online tools to help, such as COMPASS, PIQET, or PackageSmart, but there is a charge to use them and the process can be time-intensive.
- Packaging Material Attributes, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality
- Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments, United Nations Environment Programme
This page was last updated in April 2019.