The kitchen: a nightmarish wasteland where unsuspecting energy is chewed up and spit out like the gristle on that cheap steak you bought because you figured nobody would ever know the difference. But they did. And now your dinner party is ruined. So you stand in the kitchen, crying into your garbage disposal as the fruits of your labor go down the drain. Well, dry those tears, friend. Now is not the time for sadness. Now is the time for action! It’s time to take those flimsy paper plates and Styrofoam cups and put them to the test! Because now, the brilliant and attractive minds who brought you such fierce battles as Snowblowers vs. Snowshovels and Hand Washing vs. Dishwashers are pleased to bring you our most exciting fight yet. Watch in awe as disposable dishes fling their quick convenience in the face of reusables, while multi-use tableware tries to outlast its Johnny-come-lately challengers.
Round 1: Cups
Meet the Disposables:
Right out of the gate, things look grim for reusables. The alliterative trio boasts some pretty low numbers when it comes to embodied energy. It takes 6.3 Mega joules (MJ) of energy to get one plastic cup from the plastic tree to your local convenience store. Paper takes only 0.55 MJ, and a polystyrene cup requires only 0.2 MJ to produce.
Meet the Reusables:
Glass er… glasses strike right back, though, sliding in just under plastic at only 5.5 MJ. Ceramic, though, takes a little more effort to create, and hides about 14 MJ under its #1 Dad slogan. Compared to the 0.2 MJ in a polystyrene cup, 14 MJ seems ridiculous. But wait, it gets worse. Because reusable cups have to be washed between uses. So, assuming you only ever use a cup once before sticking in the dishwasher, because germs, you have to add about 0.18 MJ per use to your glass and ceramic vessels. With the exception of plastic, the others don’t really hold up well in the wash. So, in order for a ceramic cup to use less energy than paper, you’d have to use it 39 times. To beat polystyrene, though, would take 1006 uses. That’s almost a week’s worth of coffee. Glass beats paper hands down, in only 15 uses, and it beats foam in a measly 393. And, in a surprising twist, plastic betrays it teammates. Because even flimsy plastic cups have some re-use value, they can take down paper in 17 uses, and polystyrene in 450. And, to add insult to injury, plastic has the added value of being recyclable. Because of the wax and chemicals they put on the paper, it’s not. And nobody knows what happens to Styrofoam, because humanity hasn’t been around long enough to test it. At the end of round one, the points stand: Reuseables: 3 Disposables: 0
Round 2: Plates
Meet the Reusables:
Ever the heavyweight, getting a ceramic plate from to your house will cost about 53 MJ of energy. There are too many math links to link, but trust me. A 10 ½ inch ceramic plate weighs approximately 1.1 kg, multiplied by the embodied energy of the material per kg. Based on that method, a glass (Pyrex) plate takes a meagre 17 MJ.
Meet the Disposables
In round two, paper is ready to bring the fight. And with a measly 4.2 MJ per plate, it looks like it might have a chance. Polystyrene, by comparison takes about 6 MJ. However, when you take into account the multiple use factor, paper’s bluster starts looking like, well, a wet paper plate. In order to make up the energy used by the manufacturing process (and taking into account washing), a ceramic plate has to see only 13 uses, while a glass one only has to be used 6 times. Beating poly is even easier, at 11 uses and 4, respectively. After round 2, the points are: Reusables: 5 Disposables: 0 Reusable dishes are the clear winners here, which really only leaves one thing to do. We have to find someplace to put all of the disposables we’ve already stocked up on. I recommend donating them to a local preschool for art projects. Or, you could always donate them to me, for art projects. I like art projects. After their embarrassing defeat at the hands of ceramics and glass, I expect it won’t be long until disposable cups and plates disappear from the scene forever. You can help rub it in by buying sturdy reusable dishes that won’t break before they pass up their one-and-done counterparts in energy usage. If you work in an office with disposable coffee cups, tell your boss how much money you’ll save by buying everyone their own mugs. Call it a corporate sustainability initiative and they won’t be able to resist. Plus, free stuff! What will you do with your cabinet-full of paper plates? Give us your best tips in the comments below.