Are paper plates biodegradable?

Disposable vs Reusable Dishes: The Surprising Facts

Isn’t it exciting to hear good news about the green movement? The question of whether disposable or reusable dishes are more eco-friendly has been a matter of debate for some time. Although “reuse” is one of the basic 3 Rs of environmentalists, some folks claim throwaways are preferable because no dishwashing is required, thereby saving huge amounts of precious water. What’s more, they continue, the use of disposables in institutional settings significantly reduces staff workload — and the employer’s payroll. But now the middle school system in the small city of Minnetonka, Minnesota (population approximately 50,000) has successfully challenged that idea. Learn more about Minnetonka’s victory and get the dirt on disposable dishes.

Go, Minnetonka Middle Schools!

Minnetonka Middle Schools (East and West) recently switched from using disposable plastic cutlery and bowls to reusable metal versions in their student cafeterias. They have been carefully watching what happens and have compiled detailed statistics on how the change affects their operation. The results are eye-opening, to say the least. Handling the reusable dishware took only an additional 20 minutes of employee time per day. Costs were reduced by $3,000 for the first year, taking the price of the initial set-up into account. (Future savings are projected at $8,000 annually.) The schools’ carbon footprint has significantly decreased, as one small yearly shipment is received compared to monthly deliveries in the past. They produced 6,712 fewer pounds of garbage. Finally, water consumption has increased much less than expected, with 41.5 dishwasher loads daily as opposed to 38.

What Happens to Disposable Dishes, Anyway?

After you use them for 20 minutes or so, petroleum-based plastic disposables do not conveniently disappear. Discarded in the trash, they will end up in landfills where, it’s estimated, they will take anywhere from 10 to 100 years to decompose. In the process, they’ll release dangerous hydrocarbons. A greener alternative would be to collect them for drop-off at a recycling center — that is, if they’ll be accepted. Disposable plastic dishes are usually Resin Code no. 6, meaning they’re relatively expensive to recycle compared with other types of plastic. Reusing single-use dishes is not recommended. Their plastic breaks down with washing, making them prone to leach chemicals into your food.

What Happens to Reusable Dishes?

As long as they don’t break, reusable dishes will last many years, perhaps even longer than you do. Possibilities for recycling depend on the material from which the dishes are made. Ceramic dishes are not universally accepted by recycling centers, but may be taken by places which specialize in materials for roadbeds and garden paths. Recycled ceramics are also sometimes incorporated in the manufacture of new dishes or kitchen countertops. Reusable cutlery is commonly made of stainless steel, which is in great demand. An impressive 90 percent of all discarded stainless is recycled to manufacture new items. In theory, sterling silver flatware could also be recycled, or sold as scrap metal. More often, however, it is treasured as a family heirloom or made into jewelry and other decorative objects.

If You Must Use Disposables

Under certain circumstances, it may be difficult to manage without disposables — for example, on a camping trip or when a snowstorm blowing over Lake Michigan temporarily disrupts your Chicago plumbing. In such a case, look for goods made from sustainable, biodegradable materials. The old-fashioned paper cup, once displaced by Styrofoam, is making a comeback. Paper plates are also great — reusable holders will prevent the dreaded “plate sag” phenomenon. Sturdier plates, as well as bowls, can be manufactured from sugar cane or fallen palm leaves. Disposable cutlery may be made out of wood or bamboo. Besides their green goodness, many of these dishes are pretty enough for a party.

Laura Firszt writes for

Most Popular

What’s the most sustainable type of disposable cups, cutlery and plates you can buy?

The hard truth is, there’s no such thing as a sustainable disposable product.

The nature of anything disposable is that a lot of energy and resources go into making a product that’s only used once. Also, disposable cups, cutlery and plates should always go in the trash in Portland, never in the compost or recycling. No matter what they’re made from or what the label says.

Why reusable dishware is the greenest option

The biggest environmental impact of disposables happens before you buy the product. The majority of a product’s impact—energy, resources, carbon emissions—come from sourcing the materials, manufacturing and transportation.

An example carbon footprint of disposable packaging (adapted from Eco-Products website)

Because reusable cups, cutlery and dishware are used thousands of times in a typical restaurant setting, even when factoring in dishwashing, they use far less energy, water and resources over their lifetime than would be needed to make, transport and dispose of thousands of their disposable counterparts.

Reusable dishware, even if only offered to customers for on-site use, is the best environmental choice. Learn how to make the switch.

When using disposables, what to consider

There is no “best” disposable product. Each product’s environmental impact varies depending on factors such as material (paper, plastic, plants), how it’s manufactured, how lightweight or heavy it is, and how it’s packaged and transported.

The only way to know if one product is environmentally better than another is to run a full Life Cycle Assessment for each and compare the impacts of carbon emissions, energy, water, and pollution. For businesses that don’t have the time or funds to invest in that research, here are some general tips:

1. Aim for “less stuff”

Less stuff means less environmental impact, so use as little packaging as possible, or choose lighter weight products that are made with less (often thinner) plastic or paper. For example:

  • Using thinner plastic produce bags still gets the job done, but with less plastic.
  • Instead of offering pre-bundled disposable cutlery and napkins, let customers choose which items they want.

But only reduce packaging to the point where it can still protect the food from damage or spoiling. The carbon footprint of the food is often dramatically larger than the packaging, so the top priority is preventing the food from going to waste.

2. Look for products made from recycled materials

Products made from recycled materials are almost always environmentally better than those made from virgin content – within the same material type. If you’re looking for a paper drink cup, a recycled-content paper cup is better than a virgin paper cup. The same applies if you’re looking for a plastic drink cup: recycled plastic is better than virgin plastic. The higher the percentage of recycled content, the better.

But if you’re looking for a drink cup and are considering both plastic and paper versions, it’s less clear, since there are so many variations in how paper and plastic are made. It might be that a recycled paper cup has a larger carbon footprint than a virgin plastic one (or vice versa). To know for sure, you’d need a Life Cycle Assessment comparison of each product.

3. Avoid labels that cause confusion

Avoid products whose labels lead customers and staff to make “best intention” mistakes that cause problems for Portland’s recycling and compost systems.

“Compostable” label

Products labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are not allowed in compost in Portland: They don’t always break down in the compost, don’t add nutrient value, and often lead to more plastics of all types contaminating the compost and the farms and gardens where the compost is used. (The only exception to this rule is compostable bags used to collect and transport food waste).

When people see the “compostable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in the compost, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the compost facility. Read why Oregon compost facilities do not want compostable packaging.

“Compostable” products are also not allowed in recycling. They’re designed to break down, which is the opposite of what’s needed to make new, durable plastic products.

Products labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” should go in the trash. However, while some manufacturers promote their products’ ability to break down in the landfill, when things break down in the landfill, they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas – so what sounds like a good thing actually isn’t.

Additionally, “compostable” products can be worse for the environment than non-compostable products, due to their being made from biobased materials, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation . And plastics labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are unlikely to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, as it is not clear that they readily break down in a marine environment .

Biobased (plant-based) label

Biobased packaging is often promoted as an alternative to plastic packaging, which is derived from fossil fuels. But many of the currently available biobased materials are made from crops, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation.

In research comparing biobased products to non-biobased products, biobased products had a higher negative environmental impact over half the time.

The truth about biobased packaging and food service ware

“Recyclable” label

To-go food packaging is not recyclable in Portland: Disposable cups, cutlery, dishware and other to-go boxes and containers are all trash, regardless of what they’re made of (plastic, paper, bamboo, etc.). The only exceptions to this rule are round plastic tubs, which are sometimes used for soup or deli foods, and tin or metal containers.

When people see the “recyclable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in their recycling bin, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the recycling facilities.

The truth about recyclable packaging

4. Remember the bigger picture

Packaging is often top of mind for customers, because they’re the ones that dispose of it. But the environmental impact of packaging is far less than the environmental impact of food.

The most impactful thing customers and businesses can do is make climate friendly food choices (more vegetables and whole grains, less meat and dairy) and to make the most of the food we buy (avoid wasted food through thoughtful purchasing, preparation and storage).

Still confused? We get it.

If you have more questions, let us know, and we’ll try to answer your questions.

You’re also welcome to dig into research about the environmental impacts of packaging from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, from which our information is sourced.

If you want to compare different products by their Life Cycle Assessments, there are online tools to help, such as COMPASS, PIQET, or PackageSmart, but there is a charge to use them and the process can be time-intensive.

  1. Packaging Material Attributes, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality
  2. Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments, United Nations Environment Programme

This page was last updated in April 2019.

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.

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

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.

Image credit: Marco Verch/Flickr

Disposable dinnerware

The facts about disposable dinnerware

Plastic plates, cups, cutlery and drink stirrers can’t be recycled easily at our recycling facilities, even when they are made from recyclable plastic. These items are wrong shape or are too light to be sorted correctly by recycling machines, which are designed to separate larger items like bottles and tubs.

Recycling machines will often mistakenly sort plastic dinnerware as paper. The plastic items end up contaminating the paper and cardboard products and significantly reduce the quality of the recycled paper products.

After being used for only a few minutes, disposable dinnerware ends up in landfill or worse, as litter on our streets or in our parks and waterways for potentially hundreds of years.

How to avoid using disposable dinnerware

The good news is that there are many alternatives to using disposable dinnerware. You probably already have these in your kitchen cupboard.

Switch up your plastic items for reusable ones

This switch is simple and involves making the most of what you already have. Use your plates, cups and cutlery from home when you have a party at home or go on a picnic. You don’t have to use your finest china or ceramics. Choose more cost-effective, light-weight yet hard-wearing reusable plastic plates for picnic sets.

If you’re entertaining and don’t have enough dinnerware, ask guests to bring their own. Tell them you’re trying out some new low-waste living techniques to help reduce your impact on the environment.

The spoon is a stirrer’s best friend

If you enjoy making cocktails or mocktails and you use a plastic stirrer to mix them, simply use a metal spoon instead. Plastic stirrers are used for only a few seconds before being thrown in the rubbish. It’s not worth the waste.

Waste less when you’re on the go

It’s not always easy to avoid single-use plastics when you’re out, but some initial planning can help. For example, keeping a re-usable container and cutlery in your bag can prepare you for last-minute takeaway lunches.

With more people trying their best to reduce their waste, there are more travel friendly options available such as collapsible containers and travel cutlery sets.

Paper or Plastic: Making an Environmentally-Friendly Choice

If you struggle at the grocery store trying to figure out whether paper or plastic plates, cups, bags, and other goods are better choices for the environment, you’re probably not alone. There’s much discussion and debate over which material is more environmentally friendly and which is better for recycling. So what’s the right answer to the paper vs. plastic question? Believe it or not, there isn’t really a good one.

Paper, Plastic, and Recycling

Neither is the greenest option, according to Adrienne Spahr, CEO of Green Living Consulting in Washington, D.C.

“Avoiding paper and plastic would be the greenest option,” says Spahr, “because both can affect the environment negatively, depending on the use.”

It would be better for the environment to break the habit of immediately reaching for disposable materials out of convenience, Spahr suggests. Instead, look for options like carrying a reusable coffee mug or thermos to avoid getting a paper or Styrofoam cup on your morning coffee run. Buying a reusable water bottle is also much more environmentally friendly than recycling disposable plastic water bottles.

Where Do Used Paper and Plastic Materials End Up?

Both paper and plastic have pros and cons, says Spahr. First, paper tends to take up more space in landfills than plastic, and paper that’s been used for food (like paper plates and cartons) usually aren’t applicable for recycling. Plastic takes much longer to biodegrade, but it can be recycled right away and used again for another purpose.

What’s more, it’s hard to predict what will happen to paper and plastic materials once they reach landfills because they can be handled in any number of ways. Many times, waste is sealed inside a plastic bin or container and sometimes buried underground. While the container keeps harmful materials from seeping into the environment, it also prevents both paper and plastic from breaking down.

“That’s why our philosophy is to try to minimize your need for paper and plastic as much as possible because you never know where it’s going to go,” says Spahr.

Reusing Rather Than Recycling

Reusing is the greenest choice you can make. But even reusable materials, like plates, cups, dishes, and silverware, can take a toll on the environment because they have to be washed using water and detergent.

“You have to have a holistic approach to green practices,” Spahr says. That means considering the environmental impact of every product you use and every action you take. To conserve water and minimize chemicals in the environment, Spahr suggests just quickly rinsing out your coffee mug between refills throughout the day instead of washing with soap. (To avoid the spread of germs, you should do this only with cups that you personally will be reusing, not with cups, dishes, or utensils that others may use after you.)

Use green soaps and detergents, and never leave the water running when you wash or rinse dishes — environmental conservation should include water usage, too.

Putting Green Habits in Perspective

When going green, says Spahr, “everything really is so interconnected that you have to address each part of it.” Don’t just look at an individual item, like a paper or plastic bag, but rather at your overall lifestyle, what you’re doing with those objects, and other environmentally friendly changes that you can make, she suggests.

The bottom line is this: The most environmentally-friendly choice you can make is to avoid paper and plastic materials in favor of reusable ones, says Spahr. And be careful about how you use and care for those reusable materials to limit the amount of chemicals you introduce into the environment.

So as a college student you have to cut corners almost everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Something my roommates and I do is use paper plates and plastic cups. We can spend around $10 on 600 paper plates compared to however much it would be to reuse plates with a dishwasher. Earlier when I said cut corners it was more so because we are too lazy to continually clean plates. Not really sure what the money aspect is.

According to,0an old dishwasher like the one in my house uses 10 to 15 gallons of water per load per 14 place settings. Which if you think about it is a little crazy. Also according to the same site it takes 3/4 of a gallon to create one plate. So doing the math:

600 paper plates x 3/4 gallons of water = 450 gallons of water

600 plates/ 14 place settings= 42.8 dish washer cycles= 43 dish washer cylces

43 dish washer cycles x 10 gallons of water= 430 gallons of water

43 dish washer cycles x 15 gallons of water= 645 gallons of water

So by using reusable plates and a dishwasher you use anywhere from 430 to 645 gallons of water compared to the 450 gallons of water it takes to make 600 paper plates. So shockingly there is not much a of difference in terms of the effect on the environment.

So when it comes down to the brass tax of things it really depends on how lazy you are. I will probably stick to paper plates if I am being honest with myself.

Paper or Plastic? Why the Answer Should be “Neither”

As consumers, communities and governments push for an end to single-use plastic disposables such as straws and bags, many businesses are switching to paper products as an alternative. Although paper is considered by many the “better” option, it too has harmful environmental impacts.

First, paper bags and straws are made from trees. Trees act as a carbon sink, temporarily storing carbon from the atmosphere which reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, thereby lessening climate change. Plastic bags on the other hand are made of petroleum byproducts, meaning they are made from materials that have already been extracted and processed for other purposes. In contrast, paper bags must be made from fresh raw materials which translates to more deforestation and habitat damage.

Second, the production of paper bags is much more resource intensive in terms of energy and water. About 10 percent more energy is used to produce a paper bag versus a plastic one, and about 4 times as much water. Although recycled paper can be used it takes even more energy and water to go through the recycling process than virgin material, and the finished product is less durable.

Third, paper bags have more mass and are much heavier than plastic bags which means they require more fuel to transport. To put it in perspective, seven trucks are required to transport two million paper bags whereas only one truck is needed to transport the same number of plastic ones. Moreover, the increased weight and volume significantly increases the amount of waste going to landfill once they are thrown away. In fact, the disposal of paper bags results in a threefold to sevenfold increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the landfill versus their plastic counterparts. Large quantities of paper bags have even been linked to acid rain and damage to lake ecosystems.

Environmental issues aside, paper products are often more expensive than plastic. Paper straws can cost roughly 5 to 12 cents per unit, while plastic straws cost a little under 2 cents each. Despite common belief, paper products are a lose-lose for both businesses and the environment.

Therefore, the answer on whether to choose paper or plastic is neither.

The best environmentally friendly solution is to avoid single-use items altogether in favor of reusables. Reusable alternatives, such as fabric bags or reusable stainless steel or glass water bottles, coffee cups, and straws can be used over and over again in order to reduce throwaway waste and are the best option over paper and plastic.

Bags are slightly more complex. According to studies, a single use plastic bag has by far the least ecological footprint to produce when compared to paper, cotton, and non-woven polypropylene. However, the true ecological footprint of these materials depends on how often they are used and how they are disposed. A cotton bag (assuming it is non-organic) must be used 131 times before it becomes the more environmentally friendly option over plastic bags because of its resource-intensive manufacturing and transport. A non-woven polypropylene bag however must only be used 11 times to beat out single use plastic.

Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable program helps empower businesses and communities to make the best choices for themselves and the planet. If you live in an area that is considering or has already banned single-use plastics or foam, please contact us today to learn how you can implement reusable products into your business in order to go green, save money, and make your customers happy!

ReThink Disposable is funded by a grant through the Northeast Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Trash Free Waters initiatives, and the Environmental Endowment of New Jersey.

Sustainable Disposable Single Use Plates, Bowls & Platters

Go Green at home and work with our selection of disposable eco-friendly dinnerware from trusted Green brands

These days everyone is looking to “go green.” Whether you’re planning a party, wedding, business or social event, family picnic, or stocking up your eco-friendly coffee shop, cafe or church kitchen, we’ve got a great selection of compostable, biodegradable plates, bowls and platters from trusted green brands.

PrimeWare Compostable Sugarcane Plates & Bowls

Eco-Products Compostable Sugarcane Plates & Bowls

PrimeWare Diamond Compostable Plates. Bowls & Lids

Eco-Products Compostable Square Sugarcane Plates

Eco-Products Worldview 16-40 oz. Noodle Bowls & Lids

Eco-Products Worldview 6-46 oz. Coupe Bowls & Lids

Eco-Products Regalia 64-160 oz. Square Takeout Bowls & Lids

Classic Compostable Sugarcane Bowls

Eco Gecko Disposable Palm Leaf Dinnerware

Eco Gecko Disposable Palm Leaf Bowls

Eco Gecko Biodegradable Bamboo Plates

Bambu Biodegradable Bamboo Plates & Bowls

Eco-Products Dahlia Compostable Dinnerware

BridgeGateWheat Straw Dinnerware, Trays & Platters

PrimeWare Sugarcane Tan Compostable Mini Trays

Eco-Products Black Compostable Plates

Compostable Platters

Natural Value Compostable Paper Plates

You may also be interested in compostable disposable Food Containers

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *