Today, much dining uses disposable food service ware – in fact the United States uses approximately 700 billion disposable food service products every year. Unfortunately, these disposables come with environmental costs such as natural resource extraction, climate impacts, and plastic waste, as well as financial costs to food establishments due to ongoing procurement of single-use food service products and their subsequent waste management.In recent years, sustainability-minded vendors and consumers have moved away from single-use plastic products and turned to reusable alternatives. In the kitchen, for example, people often opt for alternatives such as bamboo drinking straws and waxed cloth wraps. Most assume that reusables are nearly always the greener option when compared to single-use items, having fewer environmental impacts and negative effects. However, just how green are these products?
True Environmental Impact of Disposables and Reusables
One might think that all reusable products are beneficial and would be the optimal choice in comparison to disposable, single-use plastic; however, new research conducted at the University of Michigan has resulted in some surprising findings: when researchers analyzed the lifetime environmental impacts of common kitchenware products (both single-use plastics and reusables), they found that some types of reusable products never reached a “break-even point” of environmental impact with their disposable counterpart and were, in fact, the less environmentally friendly product.
Researchers compared environmental impacts throughout the lifespan of single-use plastics and reusable common kitchenware products to calculate the environmental “payback period” for reusables. This “payback period” is the number of times a product must be reused before its environmental impacts per use equal those of a comparable single-use plastic product. This study incorporated factors such as energy use, global warming potential, and water consumption when determining the lifespan impacts of a product, and it analyzed four categories of products: drinking straws, coffee cups, forks, and sandwich bags and wraps.
Reusable products that ranked worse than their disposable counterparts included beeswax wraps, silicone bags, and bamboo reusable straws. The biggest hindrance to their inability to reach the break-even point was the water and energy required to wash these items. However, 9 out of the 12 analyzed reusable products did reach the break-even point, even with regular washing after each use. For example, all three reusable fork alternatives (bamboo, reusable plastic, and metal) had payback periods under 12 uses.
What else can you do?
- Don’t always assume that reusables are the best option. While reusable alternatives have quickly become a popular solution for replacing single-use products, they may not always be the greenest option. Research what types of products have the lowest impact and see where you can incorporate them into your food and beverage services.
- Be mindful of washing habits. Hand washing is usually less environmentally friendly when compared to machine washing. Be mindful of washing habits, choose machine dishwashing over handwashing when possible, and try to run the dishwasher only when fully loaded.
- Extend product lifetimes as much as possible. The more times a product is used, the smaller its environmental footprint will be as the impacts are stretched out across more uses. If you utilize reusables in your kitchen, use them for as long as you can.
- Switch to plant-based, compostable disposables when disposables are necessary, such as with take-out meals. Compostable food service ware, made from plants such as hemp, eucalyptus, and bamboo, can help to reduce plastic waste from single-use disposables.