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Green Lifestyle Expert Recommends Paper Plates to Save Water, We Say Nonsense

Leon Kaye | Tuesday January 4th, 2011 | 3 Comments

Disposable dinnerware and utensils have progressed since the limited selection of plastic, paper and polystyrene options of a generation ago.  Walk into any Whole Foods and their options include food containers, napkins, dinnerware, and forks made out of recycled or plant-based materials.  Then there are the sturdier and thicker options made out of plastic that supposedly can be used more than once, but often end up in the trash after one use.

Plastic utensils and paper plates will always be around, and are sometimes unavoidable.  The use of potato starch based forks and spoons are a great step; whether many actually get composted is up to debate.

So what is better for the pocketbook or the planet:  paper plates or ceramic plates?  The downside to the use of ceramic plates is that they have got to be washed, and no water-free cleaning system has come around yet–and probably never will.  Paper plates of course do not need to be washed, but then there is the waste issue.  Well, one green “celebrity” site has decided that paper plates are the way to go.

According to a noted personality who has a segment on blog talk radio, the use of paper plates “can help curve” the problem of water conservation.  After all, washing dishes is a huge waste of water, while paper plates nix that issue.  Furthermore, paper plates can be tossed into the recycling bin.  Finally, the use of paper plates would make restaurants more “sterile” . . . no word yet whether Spago or the French Laundry were ready to switch to Dixie plates and cups.  Another problem with the use of ceramic plates or stainless utensils is that unless they are washed completely, germs can spread not washed at a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit; therein lies another problem, the use of hot water and the energy used to heat it.

So in a society where “celebrity-itis” leads C-listers to give purportedly sound advice on losing weight, exercise, losing weight, adopting children from developing countries, losing weight, and go green while flying in private jets, we at Triple Pundit want to call this tidbit of green advice out.

So to address the question of ceramic vs. paper:  ceramic all the way.  True, any ceramic or metal item has a “carbon footprint,” though the manufacture and delivery of the item are one-off events.  After they are purchased, it is true that the plates have to be washed–but hand washing and dishwashers, which have become more energy and water efficient, mitigate those effects.  Common sense like not running the dishwasher with only a cup and plate inside should have set into our routines a long time ago.  As for the threat of bacteria spreading, most likely you will not have an issue unless we are talking about some horrible threat like cholera.  Chances are the way your parents and grandparents taught you about cleanliness and hygiene still apply today.

As for the paper plates and similar disposable items, you are talking about transporting those goods again and again over long distances.  Recycling may appear to be the easy way out for the disposal of those plastic forks and paper plates.  Depending on where you live, however, such recycling may never occur.  Paper plates, if soiled, often cannot be recycled.  Many paper plates have coatings that make it impossible to reprocess.  Not all grades of plastic can be recycled.  And even if your community could recycle each and every disposable fork or cup, they still require energy–and water–to create new batches of paper or plastic goods.  Then we have the issue of landfills and the methane gases the result from millions of tons of garbage simmering over hundreds of years.

Marketing and branding professionals have done a good job convincing us that bottled water, disposable goods, hand sanitizers, and yes, even paper plates are necessary because of their convenience and cleanliness.  But even if you do not want to buy all the ecological, environmental, sustainable–whatever words you choose as your poison–the fact is that there is a huge financial benefit to reducing the amount of disposable goods in your home or office.

So let us give you some advice:  with all the messages out there, if you want to save money and reduce your impact on the planet, think single purchase, not single use.

Leon Kaye is the editor and founder of GreenGoPost.com, and can be followed on Twitter.


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  • Tyler

    After researching paper v ceramic I am still on the fence. The most common points are in regards to water, deforestation, landfill/methane, and energy.

    Water – producing one pound of paper uses less than two pounds of water (~0.25 gallons). Conservatively, say 1# = 25 paper plates; an Energy Star dishwasher will use from ~2 to 5.8 gallons per cycle and probably won’t fit 25 plates.

    Deforestation – you could buy 100% recycled, but even if you don’t the pulp comes from plantations or lumber by-products.

    Landfill/methane – it looks like my waste goes to a landfill that recovers and recycles methane gas.

    Energy – not sure about this one, but I think it could go either way (if including energy to wash ceramic).

    • Twilight Sparkle

      “Water – producing one pound of paper uses less than two pounds of water (~0.25 gallons)”
      Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are all emitted during paper manufacturing. Nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide are major contributors of acid rain, whereas CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Waste water discharges for a pulp and paper mill contains solids, nutrients and dissolved organic matter such as lignin. It also contains alcohols, and chelating agents and inorganic materials like chlorates and transition metal compounds. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can cause or exacerbate eutrophication of fresh water bodies such as lakes and rivers.

      “it looks like my waste goes to a landfill that recovers and recycles methane gas.”
      - why add on to the tons of waste that they already have when you can prevent additional input? Even then, no sanitary landfills are 100% efficient at preventing run-offs.

  • soren

    well considering how i think a lot of people can be ‘too’ cleanly for what its worth as i’ve eaten off the floor a lot and use 2 sinks of water to wash plates even when it gets a bit dirty and im pretty healthy. really you could just take your plates to a river and wash them. or you could use a bunch of paper and plastic where lots of people just throw them in the garbage. although i guess i cant compare using a river to using a dishwasher because it takes up energy. i just dont think we need to worry about perfectly sterylized plates unless raw meat touched them, a person with a disease ate with you for dinner, or if poo got on your plate. otherwise i dont think its a big deal. just imagine if we used paper plates and plastic forks every night of our lives. there would be so much garbage. so just using them on nights of a party is a smaller example. but its still garbage that is adding to our planet pollution problem. as far as i can tell people just use disposable things on big party nights for convenience and so the hosts dont have to wash the plates afterwards because they are exhausted. well they could just soak them (or not) and leave them for the next day. we got to ask ourselves are we willing to put a bit of extra work in to help the environment? i just saw pictures of 1000s of albotross babies with their dead bodies on the ground because their stomachs were full of plastic. mostly bottle caps and lighters. they probably wouldnt eat plastic forks. but still. our garbage is leaving an ugly and unnatural imprint that this planet has probably never seen before. we are allowing baby birds to be born into a world where they get fed plastic and die after. ok im done, long post