What's Better for the Environment, Disposable or Reusable?

Mr. Green has the answer

By Bob Schildgen

September 17, 2017


Photo by jayfish/iStock

Hey Mr. Green, 

I volunteer for a Sierra Club Inner City Outings program. We take schoolchildren on day hikes and provide lunch. Is it better environmentally to use cheap paper plates or bring our own plates and wash them? My sense is that we use too much water washing the plates, plus it is easier to carry the paper plates.

—Barbara in Highland Park, Illinois

First, let me commend you for volunteering. Anything to get kids outdoors is wonderful because, unlike the days of yore, many spend very little time outside just being kids—some as little as five minutes a day, while they average more than seven hours a day gaping at TV and playing video games. Some studies show that they spend less than half as much time outside as kids did a generation ago. 

Reusable ware has a substantially lower impact on the environment than single-use ware, whether the reusable is made of plastic, stainless steel, or ceramic. According to one study, a ceramic cup (which requires the most energy to make among other reusable kinds) “beats” a paper cup after 18 uses, and a foam cup after 70, in terms of energy consumption. As for using water for washing, remember that it also takes a substantial amount of water just to make paper utensils—up to a quart for just one cup, not to mention the trees chewed up. An organization sponsored by Starbucks, a major source of discarded cups, found that the 58 billion paper cups thrown away every year require 20 million trees. 

All things considered, I would not worry about using paper plates or cups for your outdoor excursions with the kids, because there are obviously other considerations when traveling with young’uns. They tend to bust stuff more often than (most) adults, and there's also the issue of the extra weight of reusable utensils. On the other hand, you might have a “teaching moment” here: a chance to do some environmental education by explaining why reusables are kinder to the environment and offering the kids a choice of utensils. My guess is that you’ll turn up at least a few bright-eyed volunteers eager to lug in the weightier ware.