What’s the greenest disposable dishware?
There is no “best” disposable product. Each product’s environmental impact varies depending on factors such as material (paper, plastic, plants), how it’s manufactured, how lightweight or heavy it is, and how it’s packaged and transported.
The only way to know if one product is environmentally better than another is to run a full Life Cycle Assessment for each and compare the impacts of carbon emissions, energy, water, and pollution.
Here are some general tips:
1. Aim for “less stuff”
Less stuff means less environmental impact, so use as little packaging as possible, or choose lighter weight products that are made with less (often thinner) plastic or paper.For example:
- Using thinner plastic produce bags still gets the job done, but with less plastic.
- Instead of offering pre-bundled disposable cutlery and napkins, let customers choose which items they want.
But only reduce packaging to the point where it can still protect the food from damage or spoiling. The carbon footprint of the food is often dramatically larger than the packaging, so the top priority is preventing the food from going to waste.
2. Look for products made from recycled materials
Products made from recycled materials are almost always environmentally better than those made from virgin content – within the same material type. If you’re looking for a paper drink cup, a recycled-content paper cup is better than a virgin paper cup. The same applies if you’re looking for a plastic drink cup: recycled plastic is better than virgin plastic. The higher the percentage of recycled content, the better.
But if you’re looking for a drink cup and are considering both plastic and paper versions, it’s less clear, since there are so many variations in how paper and plastic are made. It might be that a recycled paper cup has a larger carbon footprint than a virgin plastic one (or vice versa). To know for sure, you’d need a Life Cycle Assessment comparison of each product.
3. Avoid labels that cause confusion
Avoid products whose labels lead customers and staff to make “best intention” mistakes that cause problems for Portland’s recycling and compost systems.
Products labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are not allowed in compost in Portland: They don’t always break down in the compost, don’t add nutrient value, and often lead to more plastics of all types contaminating the compost and the farms and gardens where the compost is used. (The only exception to this rule is compostable bags used to collect and transport food waste).
When people see the “compostable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in the compost, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the compost facility. Read why Oregon compost facilities do not want compostable packaging.
“Compostable” products are also not allowed in recycling. They’re designed to break down, which is the opposite of what’s needed to make new, durable plastic products.
Products labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” should go in the trash. However, while some manufacturers promote their products’ ability to break down in the landfill, when things break down in the landfill, they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas – so what sounds like a good thing actually isn’t.
Additionally, "compostable" products can be worse for the environment than non-compostable products, due to their being made from biobased materials, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation.  And plastics labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” are unlikely to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, as it is not clear that they readily break down in a marine environment. 
- Why Oregon compost facilities do not want compostable packaging
- The truth about compostable packaging and food service ware
Biobased (plant-based) label
Biobased packaging is often promoted as an alternative to plastic packaging, which is derived from fossil fuels. But many of the currently available biobased materials are made from crops, such as corn, that rely heavily on fossil fuel-based inputs for growing, processing, and transportation.
In research comparing biobased products to non-biobased products, biobased products had a higher negative environmental impact over half the time.
To-go food packaging is not recyclable in Portland: Disposable cups, cutlery, dishware and other to-go boxes and containers are all trash, regardless of what they’re made of (plastic, paper, bamboo, etc.). The only exceptions to this rule are round plastic tubs, which are sometimes used for soup or deli foods, and tin or metal containers.
When people see the “recyclable” label, they’re more likely to put the item in their recycling bin, where it will have to be screened out – causing cost and hassle for the recycling facilities.
Read more: The truth about recyclable packaging
4. Remember the bigger picture
Packaging is often top of mind for customers, because they’re the ones that dispose of it. But the environmental impact of packaging is far less than the environmental impact of food.
The most impactful thing customers and businesses can do is make climate friendly food choices (more vegetables and whole grains, less meat and dairy) and to make the most of the food we buy (avoid wasted food through thoughtful purchasing, preparation and storage).
Still confused? We get it.
If you have more questions, let us know, and we’ll try to answer your questions.
You’re also welcome to dig into research about the environmental impacts of packaging from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, from which our information is sourced.
If you want to compare different products by their Life Cycle Assessments, there are online tools to help, such as COMPASS, PIQET, or PackageSmart, but there is a charge to use them and the process can be time-intensive.
- Packaging Material Attributes – Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
- Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, concerns and impacts on marine environments – United Nations Environment Programme
This information was last updated in April 2019.
Why reusable dishware is the greenest option
Reusable dishware uses far less energy and resources over its lifetime – often thousands of uses in a restaurant or home setting – than its disposable counterparts. Even with the energy and water needed to wash ‘real’ dishware, the overall environmental impact is substantially less than single-use, throw-away items.
The biggest environmental impact of disposables happens before you buy the product. The majority of a product’s impact—energy, resources, carbon emissions—come from sourcing the materials, manufacturing and transportation.
Reusable dishware, even if only offered to customers for on-site use, is the best environmental choice.
Reusable dishware at your restaurant
Here are some best practices for switching to reusable dishware at your restaurant:
Train staff to always ask customers, “for here or to go?”
For on-site dining, serve food and beverages in reusable dishware: cups, plates, bowls, condiment cups, cutlery, trays, etc. made of glass, metal, ceramic or reusable plastic.
Leave a stack of to-go containers out in a customer area and let customers know they’re welcome to grab a to-container if they have leftovers.
Encourage customers to bring their own reusable cup by providing a discount (commonly 5 to 25-cents; the higher the better!). Display the discount where all customers can see it, to encourage them to bring their own cup next time.
Provide condiments, seasonings and sweeteners in bulk dispensers rather than individual packets.
Do not automatically include straws, stirrers, utensils or individually packaged condiments in a customer’s order for dine-in, drive-through, take-out or delivery. For plastic items, this is a City of Portland requirement: Find more details and penalties for non-compliance at the Single-use Plastics Policy FAQs.
Ask customers if they need a paper bag for to-go orders. Consider charging a fee for bags. Note that restaurants cannot provide single-use plastics bags; only paper bags are allowed and they must be made with at least 40% post-consumer fiber.
Restaurant case study: Laughing Planet
Laughing Planet staff noticed customers often asked for their food to-go but then stayed to eat their meal. This meant Laughing Planet Café was buying disposable containers and then paying to have these disposable items thrown away. It also had an environmental cost, given the energy and raw materials needed to produce, transport and dispose of one-time-use containers.
So the team at Laughing Planet Café came up with ways to encourage customers to use more "real" dishware. Here's what they did:
Train staff: Staff ask customers if they’re eating at the cafe or taking their food away. If they plan to stay, staff serve food on durable dishware and let the customer know they can grab an easily accessible to-go container if they have leftovers.
Make to-go containers accessible: To-go containers are set out near condiments and silverware. Most customers never need them, but if they do have leftovers, they can grab one without having to wait for a staff person. By making containers accessible, customers feel more comfortable eating with a durable dish.
Change the default: Laughing Planet used to package every to-go order in a paper bag, with utensils and a handful of napkins. Now staff ask customers what they want, and the reduction in disposables has resulted in reduced costs and waste.
Observe customers’ behavior: Staff noticed some people took the foil wrapper completely off their burritos so they could eat it with a fork and knife. This was especially true for groups who met for lunch meetings at the Café. The solution? Offer burritos “naked.” Customers now can “Make it Naked” and skip the foil altogether.
Staff mugs: Staff sometimes went through multiple disposable cups per shift. With many shifts per day, the cost of purchasing and disposing of all those cups added up. So Laughing Planet started providing employees with durable mugs to use while at work, further reducing waste and engaging employees around sustainability. Staff label their mug, which is used, washed, and left in the staff mug area for their next shift.
Dishwashing, and valuing staff over stuff. Moving from disposables to durables can have substantial cost savings – less stuff to buy, store and dispose of – but it does require more dishwashing.
When asked about this trade-off, downtown Laughing Planet Café manager Christina Blanchard confirmed that switching to more durables had saved them money and lead to hiring additional dishwashing staff. Christina saw this as good thing, explaining, “[it’s] more worthwhile to spend money on a person than napkins.”
As Laughing Planet’s staff have continued to find ways to reduce waste, many of the cost savings go back to employees in the form of better hours, higher wages, and paid days off for birthdays.
Tip: Motivate staff to look for ways to reduce waste and make durables work. Good ideas comes from all areas – kitchen, customer service and clean-up.
Hear from more businesses on how – and why – they’ve made the switch to reusable dishware.
Reusable dishware at your office
Some offices purchase high-quality, matching dishware and cutlery. Some purchase branded mugs and water glasses or give staff branded reusable to-go coffee mugs. If you don’t have much funding, you can find low-cost mix-and-match dishware and cutlery at thrift stores. Even if you have no funds, you can organize a “dishware donation” or “ugly mug contest” where staff are encouraged to bring in old dishware, cutlery or cups to donate to the office.
Here are some tips to set up your office with reusable dishware:
Staff break room or lunch room: Provide reusable mugs, cups, plates, bowls, and cutlery in your office kitchen. All you need is a place to store them, a sink and a drying rack. A dishwasher is nice to have, but not necessary.
At our office, staff bring in odd pieces of dishware and silverware – it’s an eclectic mix, but it works. Everything – cups, bowls, plates and silverware – is in constant use.
Office coffee: Cut down on waste by providing reusable coffee mugs for all employees to use. Have mugs near your coffee station to make reusable the obvious choice. We also suggesting putting sugar and cream or creamer in bulk dispensers to reduce the waste from individually packaged servings.
Get rid of all disposable paper products and plastic utensils: If you keep a disposable option, people may automatically choose what they’re used to.
Keeping things clean
You don’t have to have a dishwasher, but if you do, it can help to have magnets or signs that stick to the front of the dishwasher to show whether the dishes are dirty or clean.
For large meetings where durables are used, the person organizing the meeting need to designate one or more staff to load dishwashers, and return later to put dishes away.
A kitchen cleaning plan will help keep the staff break room clean. At our office, we have a kitchen cleaning rotation where each week 3 people spend half an hour cleaning the kitchen. This includes:
- Wiping down counters and the microwave.
- Loading and unloading the dishwasher.
- Composting old food from the refrigerator.
- The cleaning roster includes all staff, including leadership. The weekly clean-ups keep the kitchen looking nice for everyone, and the team effort is a great way to get to know coworkers.
Meetings and events
Ask caterers to provide “real” dishware, or purchase a set for your office that staff can use for meetings (and then wash and return).
Avoid packaging waste by asking your caterer to serve food buffet or “family style” rather than brown-bag lunches where everything is individually wrapped. Let them know if you’ll be providing dishware, cutlery, cups and pitchers for water, so they don’t bring disposable dishware.
Post-event dishwashing: Some offices assign event clean-up (including dishwashing) to specific staff, while others expect the staff organizing the meeting to handle clean-up. Some offices coordinate with janitorial to load dirty dishes into dishwashers.
Questions? Ready to start using more durables in your workplace, but not sure where to start? Contact us!