This or That: Reusable or Paper Plates?

One of the easiest ways to conserve water at home is to use the dishes that don't need it.

October 5, 2009

Does cleaning your dishes waste water?

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When it comes to finding ways to conserve water at home, one of the first places people look is the dishwasher, or, more specifically, their dishes. It would seem obvious that using paper plates requires less water, simply because they don't need to be washed. But as those dishes pile up in the trash, destined to spend eternity in a landfill, you also have to consider all the water required to make the paper that was used to make those plates. So, if you're looking to conserve water at home, are you really making the best choice by going disposable?


This: Paper Plates
They're convenient, easy to dispose of when you're hosting large gatherings, and they do save water in that they require no washing.

Cons: Assuming you're using paper plates and not the newer biodegradable sorts made from sugarcane, bamboo, or other plant starches, it takes lots of water to produce them: up to 12 gallons of water to produce one pack of 22 10-inch medium-weight dinner plates that weighs a pound (16 ounces), which is roughly half a gallon for each plate. There's also potential for another water problem—pollution. Paper pulping mills use caustic chemicals, which can contaminate waterways. And, finally, there are issues relating to disposal: Paper plates can't be recycled (the water needed to make paper is cut in half when it's made from recycled paper) or composted, due to a petroleum-based wax coating applied to prevent leaks.

That: Reusable Plates
You buy them once and never need to replace them, particularly if you go with something durable like ceramic or stainless steel. For example, Corelle-brand plates are made from glass bonded in such a way that the plates are virtually indestructible.

Cons: Information on the amount of water needed to make a plastic, steel, ceramic, or glass plate is scarce, which limits the discussion to how you wash them at home. Assuming your dishwasher is old and uses 10 to 15 gallons of water per load, and accommodates 14 place settings, as most standard-size dishwashers do, you'd be using between three-quarters to a single gallon of water to wash each plate.

This or That?
Go with…That. Reusable Plates.
Looking strictly at water use, it does appear that paper plates make the better choice (half a gallon to create one paper plate, ¾ to one gallon to clean the reusable kind). However, as with all environmental quandaries, you can't exclude all the other factors involved. In this case, energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are huge issues. The only life-cycle analysis conducted on paper and ceramic plates we came across found that the production of a ceramic plate that you can use forever emits 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide, whereas using one paper plate every day for a year would result in 128 kilograms of emissions.

Stick with reusables whenever you can, and here are some tips on cutting down on water and energy needed to wash them:

• Upgrade your dishwasher. President Obama recently announced a new program that, come November, will allow states to provide residents with cash for household appliances. If your old washer is between 10 and 15 years old, upgrade to a newer Energy Star-rated dishwasher that will cut your water use by half.

• Don't prerinse. Once you get your new washer, you'll probably realize that it's equipped to handle tough gunk, as most new appliances are. Prerinsing isn't necessary, and it wastes water.

• Switch to green dish soap. Dishwashing detergents can pollute just as badly as paper mills, if you use standard detergents that contain phosphates. Phosphates deplete waterways of oxygen, killing all the living organisms that live in the water.