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Single-use disposables – Think alternatives!

plastic in ocean fish graphicBackyard BBQ? Fall picnic? Birthday party? Another batch of paper plates, cups and silverware? Another trash bag headed for the dump? Try switching from single-use disposables to reusable dishware for your events and help the environment.

This simple action conserves natural resources, lowers energy use and carbon emissions, and reduces overall water use. This may not seem obvious at first glance but one has to consider the entire life cycle of products – their production, manufacture, transport, and disposal. Although the energy that goes into the production of ceramic plates and stainless-steel silverware is higher that of paper plates and plastic forks, the balance is tipped after a couple of dozen uses or so. Plus, there’s the transportation footprint of shipping one-time use items every time we buy them. For example, Dixie plates are made in Kentucky and travel across the country in diesel trucks to reach us.

And water? Washing reusable dishes takes water and effort, but bear in mind that a dishwasher load amounts to about 8 gallons. Compare that to the water that it takes to manufacture paper plates from raw lumber – about 8 gallons per plate – a lot!

There are other environmental factors that are important to consider in switching. Paper must be sourced from trees (themselves an important resource), paper plates and white napkins (use brown) require bleaching, which is environmentally detrimental, and then there’s disposal. Paper plates cannot be composted. Once soiled, they also cannot be recycled. Plastic silverware cannot be recycled. All these materials go in the trash and wind up in the landfill, where plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade. Remember, when we throw things away, there is no “away”.

Compostables are often promoted as an alternative, and for sure these are preferable to disposables. Currently there is no local facility for processing such materials into compost, which takes a lot of pre-processing (screening out all the plastics and non-compostables that get mixed in), water, and acreage where materials can sit in windrows for upwards of four months to decompose. So, reusables remain the best option – at least for now.

Of course cost is important, so consider – the cost of reusables is around $3.25/setting (large + small plate + silverware). Disposable items cost an estimated cost of $0.75 - $1/person. So costs can be quickly recovered after a few events.

Last year the City switched to using reusables at employee events. In a single event, the amount of trash was reduced from 27 bags to six, two of which were organics/food waste that was composted. Now we’ve taken the lead, why don’t you join us and try it out. If you’re an environmental leader too, talk to others and spread the word.

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