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?




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