Disposable Plates and Big Dinners

For me, disposable plates and big family dinners have always gone together. Case in point: Every Rosh Hashanah about nineteen of us converge on my mom and stepdad’s two-bedroom ranch. Then we all crowd around the dinner table to argue politics and laugh at bad jokes, while steam from sweet kugel and brisket rises off our polystyrene plates. imagesI always  leave  mom’s with warm feelings about family and heritage. But this year, I felt a tinge of guilt over all those dishes we’d thrown out, too.

But aren’t paper plates biodegradable? 

Well, yes…sort of. If the conditions are right many types of paper plates will revert back to nature in about five years. But some disposable plates have shiny coatings and are made with petroleum based resins in addition to paper to make them more durable. With them, reverting back to nature could take much longer, and they can seep toxins into the ground along the way. Other disposable plates won’t degrade at all, particularly if  they’re made of heavy plastic or styrofoam.  img_1665

But these days, more disposable plate manufacturers have been simplifying the number of materials used to make their products, so they can label them as biodegradable.  That can be misleading, though. Without the right amount of air and sunlight even things known to be biodegradable can remain in landfills for a surprisingly long time. The folks from the Garbage Project, an anthropological study of our waste conducted by a group at the University of Arizona, had found grapes at the bottom of a landfill that were over twenty years old. (greengood.com)

Ceramic vs Paper Plates

If I’ve learned anything from living this blog, it’s that buying something once and reusing it multiple times is always better for the planet than buying single use items again and again. There’s still a carbon foot print from manufacturing and transporting a box of ceramic plates. But that balances out over many uses, compared to paper ones that are forever in a cycle of production, transportation, and winding up in landfills. Every step of that uses resources and creates a never-ending flow of greenhouse gasses, which isn’t good for the planet–––or us.

But when I started looking for alternatives to disposable dinnerware, I learned something that surprised me. It seems, when it comes to green living and paper plates, there’s an exception to the rule of multi-use over single use.

The right dishwasher can make a difference

So, lets say I went to a consignment shop and purchased some used dishes that were in good condition for when we entertained. If we owned a dishwasher that was EnergyStar rated, (that means it does its job efficiently, while conserving energy and water,) and we loaded it up, we would be far greener than if we were to use even the most eco-friendly brand of paper dishes once.

The problem is, we don’t own a dishwasher.

An EnergyStar rated dishwasher uses about 4 gallons of water per cycle. Washing dishes by hand uses much more, because the average faucet flow is about 2 gallons per minute. Plus, there’s the electricity needed to run the water pump, as well as the propane used to heat the water. I’m not smart enough to calculate the benefits of each. But, believe it or not, there are people who have worked up life-time analysis’ formulas that compare the use of paper vs. ceramic dishes. greenbuildingadvisor.com.

But seeing as how these are too complicated for me to understand, as well, I’ll just boil it down to this: it takes me about 10 minutes to hand wash our dinner dishes–––and that’s just cleaning up after one meal for two people.  If we owned a dishwasher, instead of hand washing our dishes three times a day, we could rinse them with cold water and accumulate around eight place settings and six serving dishes into it over a few days before running a cycle.

That’s if we owned a dishwasher, which we don’t.

For us, the right paper plates might be a better option

I’ll be honest, I’m very happy to use our china when it’s just the two of us eating, or even when we have a few dinner guest. But if we have a party list of more than six people, I dread the idea of having to even pre rinse tons dishes. If only there were disposable options available that were also planet friendly.

Turns out there are! A Google search for planet-friendly disposable dinnerware will bring up a lot of websites for plates and eating utensils labelled as eco-friendly, biodegradable, or compostable! I was happy to learn too, that Chinet, the brand of plates my husband buys from Sam’s club img_1664is compostable. Now, I’m aware of how paper milling is generally hard on the planet, because of the chemicals used in manufacturing products and the waste that reenters the environment after. I wish too, that Chinet used post consumer recyclables instead of pre-consumer scraps left over from milling, and that the dishes were brown instead of bleached white. But, it wouldn’t be hard to find a greener option; plates that are not only compostable, but also are manufactured using green methods.

The difference between compostable and biodegradable

I realized not long ago that I didn’t understand the difference between the terms: biodegradable and compostable. The fact is, they both involve decomposition of an item back to nature. But in terms of labelling, one is a more reliable promise from the manufacturer than the other.

The FDA has a strict definition of what manufacturers can call compostable. The term refers to solid waste that completely breaks down within 180 days under the right conditions, like with enough heat and with adequate oxygen to allow microbes to turn it into nutrient rich ‘hummus.’ Many people own backyard composts. But these days some communities have large composts, too. In these industrial composts, conditions are closely monitored. That’s why some of the paper plates I’d looked at were labelled as ‘compostable only in an industrial compost.’ That means that the manufacturer promises that the item will break down within 180 days under that closely monitored condition. Otherwise, like if it wound up in a landfill, it could take longer or might not  biodegrade at all.

The term ‘biodegradable’ is more liberally defined, which is not good for consumers who are trying to buy green. Because of the lack of a strict definition, manufacturers can label products as biodegradable if they degrade under certain conditions, even if the sunlight and oxygen deprived landfills, where the products would likely wind up, would prevent them from doing so. That kind of misuse of green labelling is called green washing.

My take away

When it comes to hand washing dishes or using paper plates, at least for big dinners and parties the latter is a better choice for us. In choosing the right paper plate, simple is best. Disposable plates made of paper, not styrofoam or plastic, without a shiny coating, are okay choices for the planet. Also, the product label ‘compostable’ is a more reliable promise from the manufacturer that the product will biodegrade under certain conditions, than a ‘biodegradable’ label.  When it comes to disposable dishes, Chinet paper ones are not a bad choice, because they are compostable, but there are plenty of greener options available.

Or, the next time we have a holiday dinner we could go with edible dishes. Brisket in a bread bowl, anyone?




The Keurig in our Kitchen

Last week, after I’d blogged about coffee and paper filters, it occurred to me that I can’t put off writing about the 15Keurig in our kitchen any longer. Yes, my husband and I own one of the single-use coffee brewers. I’ve left a long trail of plastic coffee pods to prove it.

I received my Keurig as a gift several years ago and instantly fell in love with it.  Not only did I no longer have to scoop yucky coffee grounds into the trash, but I could enjoy several different flavors of coffee every morning. I liked it so much I bought my mom one.

I’ll admit I saw the problem right off. I’ll also admit that I ignored it. Then, as the guilt grew more each time I dropped one of the plastic pods into the trash can, I tried something crazy. I cleaned them out and put them in with my recyclables. I was fooling myself. Mingling k-cups with #2 recyclable will not transform them into something recyclable. It did however, annoy the people at the Waste Management Facility enough to yell at me.

A little k-cup history 

While Keurig was starting up back in the 1990’s the developers had a hard time finding the right receptacle for the single-use pods. They needed something that was strong enough to keep the grounds air sealed, that could still be punctured by the brewer’s cap, and remain in tact when the brewer dripped hot water through it. They eventually found that the take-out salad dressing containers from Ken’s Steakhouse fit the bill.

Back then, no one had anticipated that within a decade billions of k-cups would be produced, and that, between offices and homes, if we were to make a chain of the ones thrown out annually, we could wrap it around the Earth ten times. It was surprising then that in 2006 the environmentally responsible Green Mountain Coffee Roaster acquired Keurig.

The company agreed publicly that the environmental impact of  k-cups was a concern and vowed to fix it. In the mean time, they developed Earth Friendly campaigns and publicized them on the Keurig website. But finding a more sustainable replacement for the k-cup wasn’t as easy. So, environmental watch groups stepped up their anti-k-cup efforts.

Here’s an example of how environmental activism can move a green mountain!

In 2011 the hashtag ‘killthekcup’ was born. Then someone made a short monster film about k-cups. There’s also a website,  killthekcup.org, that tracks and reports on the environmental impact of the coffee pods as well as the progress of the anti-k-cup campaign. These efforts are an example of how environmental activism can make a difference, because since 2011 k-cup sales have declined. Recently, the city of Hamburg Germany has banned the coffee pods from its government buildings.

In April 2016, Keurig announced that it had finally come up with a recyclable k-cup. They promised to begin manufacturing it in coming months and to turn out only recyclable coffee pods by 2020. Three questions remain, though: will consumers make the effort to scoop out the wet coffee grounds from the pods in order to recycle them; will Waste Management Facilities, which are already overrun with plastic receptacles, accept the small plastic cups; will the greenhouse gasses produced when manufacturing k-cups  remain as high as they are currently?

Planet-friendlier alternatives

There are reusable coffee pods available. We own one. It’s a little bit of a pain to clean and we also have to grind the coffee to put in to it. But it is environmentally friendlier than k-cups. It’s why our Keurig still sits on our kitchen counter.

In truth, we hardly ever use it, (which is probably why I hadn’t blogged about it until now). I’m glad I remembered, though. Whenever I visit the supermarket I notice that there are boxes of many varieties of single use coffee pods on the shelves. The pods in them will end up in landfills, where they will never bio-degrade.

I choose to walk by them.

My husband and I brew our coffee by the pot and, even though we’re still using up the white coffee filters on the top of our fridge, before we switch to unbleached ones, the trash from our daily brews will break down in the landfill. Eventually, we hope to have a composter, where the coffee and filter can break down.

I should also add that we received our shipment from Higher Ground Roasters earlier this week! I’m so impressed with how quickly my order arrived, as well as with the speedy and helpful responses to my many, many emails. I’ll blog more about that later. For now, at least where our morning coffee is concerned, I’m greener now and I’m feeling less guilt!

A Tough Talk about Coffee

It’s six a.m. My husband and I are sitting across from each other, steaming mugs of Eight O’Clock coffee on the table between us. We’re having a tough talk. And, from the way my husband’s lips are pinched together, it’s not going my way.

Me: “Honest. All I was trying to do was Google paper coffee filters. But then one click led to another…”

My husband sighs. “Like always.”

A word about coffee filters, (since I’d promised to blog about them before I got sidetracked.): Most paper ones are made from the pulp of fast growing, soft trees, like pine, which likely grow in tree farms.  (If there are brands out there made from post consumer recyclables, I couldn’t find them.) The filters can be white or brown, and there are also reusable baskets. With wet coffee grounds in them, paper filters break down easily in landfills. They can also be tossed into the composter, when we someday get one.

The problem is, the coffee filters we currently use are white. So, chances are elemental bleach is used to make them. Like with other paper milled products, byproducts from chemicals used in manufacturing can find their way into the air, ground, and water.

At least with coffee filters our choices are easy:

We can continue using the white ones on top of our fridge, or


61ogitscr4l-_ac_us160_switch to an unbleached version, which is kinder to the environment, or

img_1591go with the reusable one that came with our new coffee maker. That’s best for the environment, but it’s harder to clean and may raise our cholesterol.

(The part about cholesterol may seem random, but I read somewhere that paper filters do the good job of absorbing something in the coffee that raises LDLs.)

Back to the tough talk:

My husband: “I have no problem with switching to brown filters.”

Me: “Another easy green change!  Thank you! But what about our coffee? Now that we know what we know, we can’t just––”

My husband stops me mid sentence with his stare. “Does everything have to change?”


“We’ve had Eight O’Clock coffee every morning for the past fifteen years. I…” He lowers his eyes. I’m instantly sad for him.

Me: “But until now we didn’t know about the small farmers in Brazil.”

My husband: “Brazil? Every week you come up with something else. I liked it better when we didn’t think about every little thing. Now, not only are we were trying to save the planet, but we have to worry about Brazilian farmers.”

“Brazil is part of the planet,” I snap. “So are the other countries where coffee plants grow.” My husband’s chin stiffens. I regret snapping. I slide my hand across the table onto his. “The problems with coffee goes further than the farmers.”

Once upon a time coffee grew in the shade:

Coffee is a small shrub that naturally grows on forest floorsimages in some of the most delicate eco-systems on the planet. To grow and harvest it, the sustainable practice called Shade Growing has been handed down for generations.  Shade Growing is where the shrubs grow naturally under the canopy of a rainforest.

Then coffee became the globe’s second most traded commodity next to crude oil:

In the 1970’s coffee companies, like Nestle, put pressure on local tribes to guayab_2let them clear vast acres of rainforest, so coffee could be planted in rows, and farmers could produce more.

This method of coffee farming is called sun cultivation and it comes with a cost. Because large sections of rainforest are destroyed, the bio-diversity of plant and

images-2animal life that used to help control insects and plants that damage coffee crops, and which also provide nutrients to the soil have disappeared, too. That means farmers have to now rely on pesticides and herbicides, as well as fertilizer to grow coffee. Plus, with the rainforest canopy gone, more water is needed to provide moisture.

The dangers of industrializing coffee farming: Sustained exposure to chemicals have impacted the health of the men, women, and children who work the farms. Of concern too, these artificial means of growing coffee is a one-two-punch to the rainforests that keeps coming, because whatever remains of the eco-system continues to be harmed by it.

The tough talk continued:

My husband: “Okay. Maybe coffee companies aren’t being nice to locals or responsible with the rainforest. But I like my coffee. It tastes good and the price is right. Why should I give it up for something that’s happening 5,000 miles away?”

Me: “Here’s one reason. Water. The rainforests only make up 7% of the planet and yet they help maintain the climate and water cycle for all of it.”

My husband: “I just buy a 2 1/2 pound bag every month. I don’t see how that–––”

Me: “The little choices add up to things that matters. But here’s the good news. There are coffee companies that believe that, too. If we choose to buy from them, it makes us part of the solution.”

Three certifications that say a coffee company is doing right by people and the planet:

Fair Trade: Coffee grown using ethical standards and treatment, like no child laborers and share of profits for local farmers.

Shade Grown: Coffee grown naturally, within forests.

Organic: Coffee grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals.magiccityblend_large

This article by thegoodtrade.com has a list of eco-friendly coffees to choose from. I’m interested in trying, Higher Ground Roasters, because it has all three certifications.

Last word in the tough talk: 

Me: “Higher Ground coffee may cost a little more than Eight O’Clock, but the difference is not astronomical.” I squeeze my husband’s hand.  “If it’s better for the planet, can’t we at least try it.”


My husband gives me his sweet smile, which makes me smile, too.

I knew he’d come around.

My Arguments for Cloth Napkins over Paper

My husband and I had gotten off our paper napkin habit a while ago. It was one of the easiest green changes we’ve made so far. Even still, my husband found what to complain about when I bought 2-25 packs of linen napkins.

“Are you going into the restaurant business or did you overbuy again?”

“Um…” I overbought again.

Then, I had even more explaining to do when a friend pointed out that the greenhouse gasses released and the water used when washings and drying those cloth napkins makes them no better for the planet than paper ones.

Thanks a lot, friend.

So, here are my arguments in favor of cloth napkins over paper:

A never ending cycle: Paper napkins are a single use item. That means companies, like Procter and Gamble, 51-jexwsphl-_ac_us160_need a steady flow of resources, like trees, water, crude oil, and electricity in order to manufacture and package them. The many phases of getting those resources to the mills causes the release of greenhouse gasses at intervals. Then manufacturing and packaging the products releases greenhouse gasses and chemicals that pollute the air and water at a steady flow. And after, the finished product has to be shipped to supermarkets, sending more greenhouse gasses into the air. The consumer completes the cycle when they use the napkins and then drop them in the trash at a rate of over a billion per day–––and that’s just in the US! Those billion plus napkins wind up in landfills across the country, where they slowly decompose and release even more greenhouse gasses.

Big Paper is often not so eco-friendly: Paper mills have a reputation of being hard on the environment.  They use harsh chemicals to turn wood into pulp and elemental bleach to make their paper products bright white. Paper milling has been around a long time, though. So, many companies that make paper have powerful lobbies. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s they’d block regulations put forth by the EPA that would have made them more planet friendly. That said, nowadays there are 51ujs6ebutl-_sx425_mills that do the right thing. They use recycled material instead of trees and gentle or no bleaching agents to manufacture their paper products. For me, it was just a question of doing a little research to find out which paper companies really care about the Earth.

These days, most washers and dryers are energy efficient: Our washing machine and dryer both have Energy Star ratings. That means they’re designed to save us money and be better for the planet. Plus, I let my linen napkins accumulate and then I wash them with my whites. I could also use the setting for ‘tap/cold’ water, which would save even more energy. If I then hung each napkin on a clothes line instead of using the dryer to dry them it would be even greener. But we don’t have a cloths line. Phew!

There are plenty of green laundry products available:  My husband and I haven’t yet talked about making our laundry room greener. (I’m still working through reducing our trash.) But for several weeks now, I’ve been experimenting with Dr. Bronners as detergent and cleaning vinegar as fabric softener. (Dr. Bronners is a plant-based soap that has a reputation for being good and green.) My husband was skeptical. He said things like: “Do you even know what your doing?” and “I’m not on board.”

The wash came out great, though. And, as a bonus, I no longer had to use dryer sheets, because for some reason, vinegar not only softens clothes, but it also prevents static cling! But that’s not all! That musty smell in our wash tub disappeared! So, now, not only did I find a green alternative to laundry soap, but we no longer have to buy fabric softener or dryer sheets! I was over-the-top excited, right up to the moment our washing machine stopped working mid-cycle and no longer turned on. Guess who my husband blamed.

“But I’d been using Dr. Bronners and vinegar for over a month,” I said.

To which he replied, “You killed the coffee maker the same way.”

“It was thirteen years old.”

“It was doing fine until you cleaned it with vinegar.”

For the record, I’d cleaned the coffee maker with vinegar plenty of times over the years. But now, whether he can figure out how to fix the machine or we replace it, I’m a little scared to try the vinegar/DB combo again. So, my plan-B was to find a green laundry detergent at my supermarket. I noticed that Seventh Generation has so many planet-safe ones, and most of them have gotten ratings of 8.0 or better for environment on GoodGuide. (They’d also gotten high marks for health and social.) Some of them 173738-5even come in compostable containers. But, back to my point, whether I use vinegar and DB or one of the green detergents found in the cleaning aisle at the store, that would take the negative impact of chemicals from laundry detergents and such out of the equation.

Cloth napkins can be used more than once: Don’t be grossed out by this, but my husband and I will use the same linen napkin for two or three meals, or until it looks dirty. (I see you making a face.) It’s not like we share a single napkin with lots of people. It’s just the two of us and we each have our own. And, might I point out, the Spartans wiped their mouths with lumps of dough. At least we’re not dabbing our faces with uncooked bread.

With all that considered: It seems to me, with environmentally friendly practices in place for washing and drying, cloth napkins win over paper.

And now, the degrees of going green for paper napkins: