Washable or disposable dishes? The decision might be harder than you think

I was recently asked this question, and I thought it was a no-brainer.

Is it better to use energy and water to wash dishes or to use disposables?

After all, part of living sustainably is reusing washable items, so it only makes sense that you would choose washable, reusable dishes rather than disposable varieties, right?

But when I looked into the answer a little deeper, I found that there are more factors involved in this decision than I originally thought.

Even as an environmentalist, I glazed over as I scanned studies done on this topic.

To make the most sustainable decision about your dinnerware, you have to consider the types of hand washed or machine washed dishes in question; the technique used to hand wash; the efficiency of dishwashers and how full they are when in use; the energy used to manufacture a dish or utensil vs the energy used to make a disposable item; the material the disposables are made out of; the distance travelled in getting to the user; the type of detergent used; the method of trash disposal…. And that’s only scratching the surface.

How much water do you use washing the dishes?

Luckily, as residents in northeast Indiana, the decision is a little easier for us.

It turns out we are lucky enough to have an abundance of clean water here in Allen County, and even though we want to conserve that clean water, it is a plus for washing dishes.

Things get trickier when you look at how many times you have to reuse a ceramic dish or cup to make up for the extra energy needed to make it. In the best-case scenario, you have to re-use a plate around 50 times to compare to a sustainably sourced paper product.

Even so, when we’re talking about dishes for your home that you do use every day, that seems like a plus in the wash-it category.

Now the key is to wash it efficiently.

If you are the average hand washer, you are probably using way too much water. Modern dishwashers are more efficient and use less water than hand washing, but only when they are full. Wasteful hand washing or a less-than-full dishwasher count as votes in favor of disposable dishes.

Speaking of waste, many of us also have too many dishes sitting around our houses, gathering dust in cupboards. The number of dishes collected by most Americans actually skews the answer in favor of disposables because we don’t use them enough to make up for the energy that was needed to create them.

In all of our considerations, one thing is for sure: Washing and reusing dishes is always preferable to using disposable plastic.
Plastic cups, plates, and utensils are made from non-renewable resources. They are only recyclable in some cases if they are clean (#1, #2, and #5 are best). “Compostable plastic” is not an option in our area due to the lack of facilities to handle them.

So while the jury may still be out on the best dishes for your next occasion, remember to wash the dishes you do own efficiently by hand or with a full load in the dishwasher using a biodegradable soap. And only buy the dishes you actually need.

Then if you do choose to go with a disposable paper product occasionally, you don’t have to carry around the baggage of guilt that often comes with it.

Just be sure to choose an unbleached, recyclable variety.

Eco-friendly disposables to try

Kanak Naturals (made in Fort Wayne!)

Earth's Natural Alternative Plates at Walmart

Eco-Friendly Chinet at Costco

Eco-Friendly Biodegradable Compostable Wooden Forks Wooden Cutlery By First Choice on Amazon

Also, check out 3 Rivers Food Co-op for good options!
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Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected].