By Cameron Jenkins
What sparked the idea for this post was (another) debate with my roommates: “Should we buy some paper plates?” There are four of us who share a kitchen, which means four of us needing to use dishes to eat. We end up going through a lot of dishes and run the dishwasher a few times a week.
Immediately my response was to not purchase the paper plates, as I’d like to think that reusing plates is better than disposable ones. Let’s save the trees, right? Then I thought about the water use for each dish washing cycle. What about clean water conservation? I decided to use the trusty google search engine to conduct some mini research on which is a better solution.
Paper plates are very convenient. After use, they can be disposed of and save water because no washing is required. Actually, though, a lot of water is used in producing them. It takes “up to 12 gallons of water to produce one pack of 22 10-inch medium-weight dinner plates that weighs a pound (16 ounces), which is roughly half a gallon for each plate.” Add in pollution from the chemicals used to create the paper pulp, and you’ve got more of a water issue. Also, generic paper plates cannot be recycled or composted due to a “petroleum-based wax coating applied to prevent leaks.” (Source)
The case for reusable plates is that there is a one-time fee of purchase, and you will not have to replace them. They are also very tough, while paper plates may not support all the weight of food. I couldn’t find any information on how much water is used to produce a plate unfortunately, so the debate has to go to washing them at home. “Assuming your dishwasher is old and uses 10 to 15 gallons of water per load, and accommodates 14 place settings, as most standard-size dishwashers do, you’d be using between three-quarters to a single gallon of water to wash each plate.” This can obviously vary from dishwasher to dishwasher and depending on what cycle you put it on (eco, normal, light, etc.), but it will generally be around the same amount. (Source)
At first, it looks like paper plates win with water use (“half a gallon to create one paper plate, ¾ to one gallon to clean the reusable kind”). But, the real winner comes to show when thinking about the environmental impact. From my source, “The only life-cycle analysis conducted on paper and ceramic plates we came across found that the production of a ceramic plate that you can use forever emits 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide, whereas using one paper plate every day for a year would result in 128 kilograms of emissions.” So, the conclusion is to stick with reusable plates when you can.
Water and energy use can still be cut down by upgrading your dishwasher; typically, the newer the appliance nowadays the more energy and water efficient it is which can reduce your all around impact. Not pre-rinsing dishes can also save water, as you are letting the dishwasher do all the work. Switch to green dish soap that doesn’t contain harmful ingredients.
In terms of the dorm life, perhaps purchase eco friendly paper plates that can be recycled and composted. Of course the issue there is cost, so if regular paper plates have to be used, try to be mindful with waste and not using lots of them. In the cafeteria, you can skip the tray and reuse your plates and bowls when you go up for seconds.