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Sustainable tableware: plastic vs. organic

With the growing awareness of single-use plastics and the recent regulations banning them (European Directive and Spanish legislation), a recurring question arises in the field of sustainability: which option is more environmentally friendly, a plastic cutlery or an organic one?

To answer this question, it is essential to carry out an exhaustive analysis of the life cycle of each of these products, as we explain in this post and video.

Life cycle analysis of plastic vs. organic tableware

Life cycle analysis (LCA) consists of tracing all stages of the production process, from the extraction of raw materials to their transformation into the final product. This is followed by an assessment of the use phase and finally the end-of-life, which may involve recycling, reuse, incineration or landfill.

By comparing these two scenarios, it is possible to have a clearer picture of which of the options leads to a more sustainable household. However, the conclusion is not so simple.

The scenario for plastic cutlery is clearly unfavourable in the end-of-life phase, as plastic cutlery, due to its weight, often ends up in landfills, where it can take hundreds of years to decompose.

On the other hand, manufacturing organic cutlery from food also has negative impacts, such as a higher carbon footprint and higher water consumption. However, at the end of life, organic cutlery can be composted, which is preferable to the plastic alternative.

There are different studies that analyse the different alternatives. For example, this life cycle analysis compares dishes made of different materials:

  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS)
  • Polylactic acid (PLA , bioplastic)
  • Cellulose
  • Porcelain

One of the key assumptions of this analysis is that porcelain is considered to be used a thousand times and the other materials are considered to be used only once(single use).

The results are shown in the table below. It can be seen that in these impact categories (climate change and water), organic alternatives are not always the best.

Impact

Unit

PP

PS

PLA

Cellulose

Porcelain

Climate change

Kg CO2eq

54.4

69.2

96

121

17.6

Water

m3

0.091

0.15

2.89

0.24

0.41

Sustainable tableware: solutions

What solutions can be found to the challenge of finding sustainable tableware?

Firstly, it is crucial to understand that the key is not so much the material used, but the concept of “single use”. Reusing and re-purposing manufactured products can significantly reduce their environmental impact. In addition, there are other strategies to address the disadvantages of each scenario.

For example, some startups focus on ensuring the reuse of plastic tableware, which decreases the impact in terms of CO2 emissions and water consumption, while solving the end-of-life problem.

Other companies choose to keep their tableware organic, but use organic waste in its manufacture instead of conventionally grown food. This reduces the carbon footprint and water consumption, while preserving the end-of-life compostability of these products.

It is important to note that current life cycle analyses are not able to fully capture the health impacts related to plastics and microplastics. This area of research is still under development and requires further in-depth and comprehensive analysis.

Each product and alternative is different. Therefore, each life cycle analysis will be unique and may yield different results from the above-mentioned study.

The key to addressing this challenge is to analyse the entire life cycle of each of the alternatives in order to find the weak points of each option and look for improvement measures to reverse them.