Open Thread - Which is "Greener," Disposable or Non-Disposable Dishes?

Paper decomposes at a fairly quick rate, while plastic takes longer and Styrofoam even longer. Because of this, it seems like an easy answer and perhaps it is, but consider this:

When using dishes that require cleaning, you must use detergent. "Many dishwashing detergents contain phosphate - it's a naturally occurring substance, but if too much of it gets into waterways, algae and phytoplankton feed on it and reproduce in massive numbers; causing an algal bloom."

"Phosphate isn't the only concern. Dish washing detergents can contain a myriad of chemicals. Surfactants, stability and dispensing aids, fragrances and colors, mildness additives, preservatives and antibacterial agents are sometimes added. In some cases these might be naturally occurring substances, but often they won't. Some will be toxic to aquatic organisms and likely won't be filtered out at water treatment facilities."

Something else to note is the fact that the detergent must be stored in either a box or bottle, creating waste, though obviously much less waste than disposable dishes.

The next consideration would be power usage. It takes power to wash dishes, just as it takes power to make disposable ones.

Another consideration is water use. Obviously it takes water to wash dishes, and depending on the number of dishes and frequency with which they are washed, the amount of water used will fluctuate.

Finally, at some point these dishes will be thrown away. How long would it take for plastic, metal and ceramic dishes to break down?

Any ideas on the subject? What is your opinion as to which is more environmentally responsible?

It should also be noted that I am not making an argument for either side, simply sparking discussion.


  1. You must also consider the cons of disposable dishes.

    They are made of paper, plastic or Styrofoam. Plastic and Styrofoam take forever to degrade. Paper would degrade faster but when buried in landfills away from sunlight, air and water it is essentially preserved forever.

    Then there are the trees, oil and chemicals that go into their production. Then the pollutants caused by their production. Then the gas that went into their transportation. Then the damage done to the world while harvesting the trees and oil. Loss of topsoil, extinction of species, dead rivers, political strife, wars, etc.

    I fall on the side of non-disposable. I've had the same glass dishware set for going on ten years. I love 'em. How many paper plates would I have thrown away in the interim if I used them instead? And I'm just one person. I may use water and soap to clean them but the amount I use to wash my dishes three times a week is negligible to the amount I use washing my own body on a daily basis for 24 years.

    Thinking of it on a larger scale, non-disposable is the only way to go. I used to work in a restaurant. We served in the ballpark of 400~800 people a day. We had the same flatware for years. We might lose a plate or glass once a week but that's nothing compared to 2800~5600 paper plates.

    Curious what other's have to say.


  2. You are absolutely right about the problems with disposable dishes, but some one had to play devils advocate. :)

  3. I also believe that non-disposable is the way to go. Washing dishes requires water (recycled by nature if not by the school), provides employment, and creates a sense of caring for one's belongings. New technologies will provide for cleaning without phosphates, and for generating or using energy. I attended school in the same building my mother and grandparents went to. That doesn't happen any more, but it should. Having our food on dishes that we clean and will use again tomorrow is the first step for children to learn that we should keep and reuse the things we have, instead of throwing them out.

  4. Disposable products require a large storage room and large trash area - a luxury for a school facility. Also required is a compactor with an extractor, which uses a fair amount of water and creates a sludge requiring a grease trap. My preference, if I were on a school board, would be to return to non-disposable products.

  5. When I was in elementary school in the early 1980's, we ate off steel trays with steel utensils that students (I included) scraped, rinsed and slid into a big old washer that rinsed and sterilized with very hot water -- no detergent involved. Granted that's water use and energy to heat it but no phosphates, at least. Our school district is trying to move back to reuseable dishes but it's slow-going.

  6. I'm all for reusable dishes. First, there is the reduced waste created by the disposable dishes. I think that students should be held responsible for scraping plates and cleaning up. It teaches responsibility and a sense of ownership, not to mention teaching a valuable life skill. For older students (high school age), kitchen duty could be offered as a for-cedit class, much the way school service (being a TA) is. This could be a great way for students to learn about working in a commercial kitchen, especially if they are interested in food service/hospitality.

    Finally, there is something much more appetizing about eating from a real dish with real silverware than eating from styrofoam with a spork. I think the transition to real dishes should be accompanied with a transition to more healthy, appetizing items. (I can dream, can't I?) It's hard to get excited about luch when you have to eat with a flimsy spork. Likewise, crappy fish nuggets (?!?!) would look ridiculous on a nice plate. Students deserve (and need) to have a luch worth looking forward to.


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