What’s the most sustainable type of disposable cups, cutlery and plates you can buy?
We get this question a lot. The truth is, while disposable items are convenient, they're not good for the environment, no matter what they're made from. And they're not recyclable or compostable, regardless of what the labels say.
Since 2015, no disposable ware – even if it says compostable – is allowed in Portland’s city wide commercial or residential food scrap collection. Disposable cups, cutlery and plates are also not recyclable in Portland: These products contaminate recycling and compost and should go in the trash.
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)
When using disposables, what to consider
There is no “best” disposable product; each has pros and cons. Understanding those pros and cons is almost impossible without performing a Life Cycle Assessment that compares all the environmental impacts (energy, water, pollution, etc.) of the exact products you’re considering.
Since not all businesses have the time or funds to invest in that research, here are some general tips:
Two rules of thumb
1. Less “stuff” means less environmental impact, so using as little packaging as possible is ideal – but only to the point where the product isn’t damaged. If the packaging fails to keep the product usable (or food edible), then all the environmental impact that went into creating the product goes to waste. Less “stuff” could mean reducing the amount of packaging, and/or using plastic that’s made with less material (like thinner plastic).
2. Products made from recycled materials are almost always environmentally better than those made from virgin content – within the same material type. That is, a recycled-content plastic cup is better than a virgin plastic cup, and a recycled-content paper cup is better than a virgin paper cup.
However, a virgin plastic cup might be environmentally better than a recycled-content paper cup, since paper and plastic each have different environmental impacts (that’s why a full Life Cycle Assessment is needed to really find out).
What to know more about a specific product? If you’d like to access Life Cycle Assessments of different products to help you choose what to purchase, contact us and we’ll point you in the right direction.
Avoid label confusion
“Recyclable?” Probably not.
Most take-out products are not recyclable in Portland, so even if the product says “recyclable,” it’s likely not.
Why not? To-go paper products are hard to recycle because of food contamination or the wax or plastic coating. To-go plastic products are either made from plastics that aren’t cost-effective to recycle (and therefore no manufacturers want to buy them), or their shape makes them too difficult to sort out from other recyclables.
Additionally, while recycling is a great thing to do, the recyclability of a product is only one part of its environmental impact. The vast majority of the environmental and carbon impact from a product (including packaging) comes from the materials it’s made from, manufacturing and transportation — that is, everything that happens before it gets to you. Which means all those resources and energy were used to create a cup or fork or bowl that’s used for a few moments and then tossed.
“Compostable?” Not really.
Products labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” are not allowed in compost in Portland, as they don’t always break down in the compost, don’t add nutrient value, and often lead to more plastics of all types ending up in the compost.
These 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, if they break down in the landfill, they will likely produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Still confused? We get it.
If you have more questions, let us know, and we’ll try to answer your questions or find people who can.
You can also dig into research about the environmental impacts of packaging from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
This page was last updated in September 2018.