You Asked, We Answer: What’s the most sustainable type of disposable cups, cutlery and plates I can buy?
There’s no absolute best product, but weighing the pros and cons of each option will help you make an informed decision that’s right for you and your situation.
*Note: Since March 1, 2015, no disposable ware – even if it says compostable – is allowed in Portland’s city wide commercial or residential food scrap collection. Learn more.
The short answer
For disposables, look for products made with recycled content. The higher the percentage of recycled content, the better.
Paper, cardboard, and plastic disposable ware with recycled content are becoming easier to find. Look for labels that say “made with recycled content” or “30% [or more] post-consumer recycled content.”
The hard truth about disposable items.
The biggest environmental impact of disposables happens before you buy the product.
An example carbon footprint of disposable packaging (adapted from Eco-Products website)
- Disposable, or “throw-away,” items are generally not a good environmental option. This is because a lot of energy and resources go into making and transporting these one-time use products.
- As of March 2015, all disposable dishware items – plastic, paper, and compostable cups, cutlery, and plates – goes into the trash in Portland. None of these items can be recycled or composted at work or at home.
- Even if disposables could be recycled or composted, the majority of their environmental impact occurs “upstream” – in manufacturing and transportation - before they’re even used.
Pros and cons of different products
The biggest environmental impact of disposables is what they’re made of.
Below are pros and cons of the different materials to help you make the best decision for you and your situation.
The information provided here is from research cited at the end of this article. Please note, this is not an exhaustive overview.
Quick links to product overviews:
- Recycled Paper Products
- Conventional/Virgin Paper Products
- Recycled Plastic Products
- Conventional Plastic Products
- Biodegradable Products
Recycled paper products are made with either post-consumer or post-industrial recycled paper. Depending on the product and brand, recycled paper contains 10 to 100 percent recycled material.
- Recycled paper products use 40 percent less energy than paper made from raw/virgin materials .
- Recycled paper products are manufactured using less detergent and other harmful chemicals than paper products made from raw materials .
- Recycled content napkins and paper towels, among other products, are widely available.
- Like other paper products, recycled paper may be bleached with chlorine or chlorine compounds. This toxic process produces many harmful by-products and should be avoided .
Tip: Pay attention to how much recycled content is used in a product. A product may be labeled “recycled content” with as little as 10% recycled material. The lower the recycled content, the more raw materials are used. Raw paper sources could include unsustainably sourced wood, like old growth forests [9, 10].
Conventional paper products are made from virgin wood/trees. A few brands make virgin paper products from bamboo or other plants.
- Conventional paper products are made from wood or bamboo, both renewable resources.
- Demand for paper products is depleting the world’s forests faster than they can renew, reducing an important resource for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and protecting our natural environment [1, 9].
- Most paper products are made with bleaching agents that include powerful carcinogens such as dioxins that pollute water and soil .
Dishware made out of Bagasse, a fibrous byproduct of sugar production, is a substitute for disposable paper dishware . Bagasse dishware is often marketed as biodegradable or compostable. However, it is not allowed in either residential or business composting in Portland.
- Bagasse products are produced from sugarcane, a renewable resource.
- Bagasse products are made from a secondary waste product of making sugar and therefore do not impact food supply .
- Bagasse products are made with less energy and water than their paper counterparts .
- If Bagasse products break down in the landfill, they do so without oxygen and they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming . The landfills where Portland’s waste goes do capture methane and use it to generate electricity, but some methane still escapes into the atmosphere.
Recycled plastic products are made from either post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content .
- Products made from recycled plastic use 33% less energy than products made from virgin plastic .
- Unless the product is made from 100% recycled content, the new plastic content is still made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Extracting petroleum emits greenhouse gases that cause climate change and can pollute waters .
- Some plastics contain known carcinogens and can leach hormone mimicking chemicals into our bodies. Avoid purchasing plastics with known toxins, such as BPA [1, 3, 9].
Conventional plastics are made from petroleum and natural gas.
- Relatively inexpensive
- Plastic is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource .
- Extracting and processing petroleum releases greenhouse gases that cause climate change. These processes also pose a threat to nearby waterways, local air quality, and can pose a health hazard to workers .
- Some plastics contain known carcinogens and leach harmful toxics, negatively impacting consumers .
- Plastic cutlery, cups, plates, and take out containers cannot be recycled in Portland’s citywide system (only plastic jugs, bottles and tubs are allowed). Unless your business collects these items separately and finds an independent recycler to accept them, they go in the trash.
Bioplastics are plastics made from plants, algae, or microorganisms. The two most common bioplastics for foodservice ware - PLA and PHA - are made from corn [11, 14]. However, bioplastics can also be made from wheat, rice, potatoes, barley, or sorghum.
- They are made from plants, a renewable resource.
- Bioplastics production uses less energy than conventional plastics and emits less carbon dioxide .
- Bioplastics do not have the same known health risks as petroleum plastics .
- Bioplastics can reduce the food supply by competing for land and other resources [1, 11].
- Fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides are often used when growing crops for bioplastics and are a health risk to people working on these farms and to neighboring communities when they contaminate drinking water .
- Because bioplastics look similar to conventional plastics, they end up in recycling, where they contaminate conventional plastic recycling [8, 9, 11, 14].
- If bioplastics break down in the landfill, they do so without oxygen and release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide [1, 14]. The landfills where Portland’s waste goes do capture methane and use it to generate electricity, but some methane still escapes into the atmosphere.
Products labeled ‘biodegradable’ can be made from plant material, or conventional plastic with chemicals added so the plastic breaks down, or a mixture of the two . Biodegradable products are intended to break down into small natural elements in a short period of time when exposed to sunlight, air, and water.
- Many biodegradable plastics break down into smaller pieces that create land or water pollution .
- If bioplastics break down in a landfill, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas .
- Biodegradable plastic cannot be recycled, and if it ends up in recycling, it will contaminate the plastics recycling process and reduce the quality of goods produced from the recycled materials .
Impacts of different disposable dishware materials
*Health risks from chlorine and bleaching agents, which not all recycled paper companies use .
**Health risks from production are from fertilizer and pesticide use, which varies depending on the type of plant grown for creating bioplastics .
Table: Summary of environmental and health impacts from production, consumption, and disposal of materials commonly used to make disposable food service products [1-14].
1] Durable versus Disposable. Issue brief. Momentum Recycling, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
2] Yepsen, Rhodes. "Compostable Products." Bio-Cycle (June 2008): 41-43. Print.
3] Allaway, David. "Waste Prevention and the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy." Portland Metro Region Master Recyclers. Portland. 19 Feb. 2014. Lecture
4] Saving Little Pieces of Our Earth. Dir. Oregon Metro. Oregon Metro, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 June 2014
5] Barton, Brooke, and Sarah E. Clark. Water & Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production. Rep. Ceres, June 2014. Web. 18 June 2014.
6] Dietz, Cyndra. Compostable Food Serviceware: What to Know Before Purchasing. N.d. Presentation. Portland.
7] "Disposables." GREEN RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION UNIVERSITY. Green Restaurants 101, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
8] Moore, Patty. Bio-Plastic, Degradable Plastic, and Recycling. N.d. Presentation. Portland.
9] "Sustainable, Disposable Foodservice Products." Sustainable Foodservice: Disposable Products. Sustainable Foodservice, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
10] "Recycled Content." Whole Building Design Guide. National Institute of Building Sciences, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
11] Momani, Brian. "Assessment of the Impacts of Bioplastics: Energy Usage, Fossil Fuel Usage, Pollution, Health Effects, Effects on the Food Supply, and Economic Effects Compared to Petroleum Based Plastics." Thesis. Ed. Rober W. Thompson and Janice Gobert. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2009. Print.
12] "Energy, Emissions and Water Comparison between Bagasse, Paper and Styrofoam." Making Bagasse. World Centric: Zero Waste Solutions, n.d. Web. 18 June 2014.
13] Denison, Richard A. Environmental Comparison of Reusable Ceramic Mugs vs. Disposable Cups Made from Polystyrene or Virgin Bleached Paperboard. Rep. Boston: Alliance for Environmental Innovation, 1998. Print.
14] Barker, Myles, and Richard Safford. Industrial Uses for Crops: Bioplastics. Great Britain: HGCA, 2009. Web. 18 June 2014.
Research conducted in 2014.