With summer in full swing, backyard barbeques and family picnics have replaced indoor parties and dinners across the country. Given how much time people spend during the warmer months outdoors appreciating nature, it should come as no surprise that event planners think a lot around this time of year about what they can do to help the environment.
While some of the things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of outdoor events are obvious, such as choosing locally sourced food whenever possible, others are less clear. This article will look at one such issue. By the end of it, you should be able to make a more informed decision about whether to use paper or melamine plates during that next backyard barbecue.
Does Washing Dishes Waste Water?
Some people use paper plates just because they're more convenient. However, many Americans also believe them to be more environmentally friendly since they don't need to be washed after each use. In areas of the country where water consumption is a primary focus, it can seem like a compelling argument. The question is, does it hold up to scrutiny?
Washing dishes can waste some water, but only if people do it by hand with the faucet running. Today's energy-efficient dishwashers are very efficient, using as little as four gallons of water per load. Compare that to the eight gallons of water used to make one paper plate, and it's clear that reusable dishes win out.
Of course, not everyone has a dishwasher, and some dishes must be washed by hand. Even when that's the case, simple steps such as plugging up the sink or getting a dish tub and soaking dishes before washing them instead of letting the water run the whole time can make a big difference. Either way, washing dishes requires far less water than manufacturing paper plates.
Paper Consumption and the Environment
Water use is just one small part of the picture that does not capture the full environmental impact of manufacturing paper plates. The process is also harmful to the world's forests. Few manufacturers used recycled paper, typically referred to as "post-consumer waste," to make their paper plates. Most use virgin timber fibers.
The harvesting of timber for paper can destroy ecosystems, even when it's performed in theoretically sustainable ways. Logging roads can reduce wildlife access to shelter and food and removing many trees at once can create a negative domino effect on the surrounding ecosystem, even if the timber company doesn't clear-cut the forest.
To make matters worse, paper plates can rarely be recycled. Most paper products can be reused, but because paper plates become contaminated with food in the normal course of use, they must be thrown away and wind up in landfills.
Energy Use and Carbon Footprints
A third consideration for people who take ecological stewardship seriously is energy consumption and the carbon footprint of paper plates vs. more durable alternatives. While it's true that it takes more energy in the short run to manufacture real dinnerware, recall that you reuse it many times.
Manufacturing a ceramic plate, for example, uses around 18 times as much energy as making a paper plate. Most people can get at least 18 uses out of even highly breakable ceramic, but the numbers work out even more in favor of reusable dinnerware when you buy dishes made from a more durable material like melamine, which will last far longer and thus have an even lower carbon footprint in the long run.
Unfortunately, making paper for any purpose, including disposable plates, involves the use of hazardous industrial chemicals. More specifically, manufacturers use chlorine compounds to bleach the wood pulp in large volumes. Chlorine compounds aren't just known carcinogens. Researchers now believe they may also contribute to reproductive, developmental, and immune system disorders in many living organisms, including people.
Of course, all manufacturing processes generate some waste. The good news is that research to date does not show the same kind of environmental degradation associated with the materials used to manufacture durable dinnerware. Researchers in the Netherlands and Germany specifically investigated whether melamine and the related chemical cyromazine could be found in the water and soil surrounding manufacturing plants. They found neither chemical in the surrounding surface, ground, or drinking water.
Tips for Further Reducing Ecological Impacts
Even though you must wash it after each use, regular dinnerware is always more environmentally friendly than disposable paper plates. There are, however, ways to further reduce negative ecological impacts. If you want to do everything possible to act as a good steward of the environment, follow these tips for reducing water use and carbon footprints:
- Use an Energy Star-approved dishwasher instead of doing them by hand.
- Fill the dishwasher instead of running partial loads.
- Scrape food off the plates instead of rinsing it off and compost it if possible.
- Use eco-friendly dishwasher soap and buy in bulk to avoid plastic waste from packaging.
- Choose plates made from a durable material that will not break if they get dropped or otherwise mistreated, especially for outdoor functions and family gatherings involving children.
- Instead of buying multiple types of dinnerware, choose a relatively lightweight material that you can use for both backyard parties and picnics in the park that require carrying food and plates.
Are you concerned about how guests will feel about the convenience of paper plates vs. durable dinnerware? Public opinion has changed a lot in recent decades. These days, it's easy to convince people that it's worth carrying a small amount of extra weight for picnics and helping hosts clear the table after a tasty backyard meal.
Melamine Plates Offer a Perfect Solution
Overall, manufacturing and cleaning melamine dishes creates less pollution, uses less energy, and reduces the burden of paper production on forests. The water and energy required to wash the dishes following each use is minimal, and the overall impact of washing dishes vs. using paper plates is much lower. The solution is clear: ecologically-minded parents and party hosts looking for a better solution than paper plates can purchase attractive, durable, and reusable melamine dishware instead.