With summer just around the corner, we can start hosting backyard barbeques with our family and friends again and enjoy the warm weather! Paper plates can be extremely convenient for these kinds of events…who likes doing the dishes in hot, humid weather? Trust me, I get it! But this raises some questions for those of us trying to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle; can you recycle paper plates? What is the environmental impact of paper plates?
Today we are going to explore paper plates, their environmental impact, and some eco-friendly alternatives!
What is a paper plate?
Single-use dinnerware items (like paper plates) are extremely common in Canada, the US, and around the world. In 2020, the global paper cups and paper plates market reached a value of $114.6 billion USD! And this market is only expected to grow…
As the name suggests, paper plates are sourced from trees. This might include Spruce, Pine, Fir, Larch, Hemlock, Eucalyptus, Aspen, or Birch. To make a typical paper plate, the wood is broken down into tiny pulp fibers which are first filtered to remove dirt and other contaminants. The pulp is then bleached white and placed into special molds to form its signature circular shape. Lastly, the pulp is pressed, dried, and stamped with colorful designs.
Oftentimes, paper plates are coated with a thin layer of plastic or chemicals during the manufacturing process to improve their durability and keep food oils out. This becomes important when we consider the environmental footprint of paper plates…
Do paper plates harm the environment?
You might be surprised to hear that if you are choosing between a paper plate and washing dishes in terms of the environmental footprint, many sources suggest washing ceramic dishes might be the better option! Input Fort Wayne says a disposable plate – even if it was sustainably sourced – would need to be used about 50 times to equate to the carbon footprint of washing one ceramic plate.
The carbon footprint of standard paper plates depends on sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal. As mentioned, paper plates are sourced from paper pulp from different species of trees. In turn, paper plates contribute to deforestation, biodiversity/ habitat loss, and the loss of valuable carbon sinks.
The production of paper plates also requires chemicals like bleach (chlorine compounds) to give the plate that typical clean white color. But these chemicals can wreak havoc on the natural environment and our physical health. Chlorine was ranked among the most hazardous industrial chemicals since it is a known carcinogen and has been linked to negative impacts on our development, reproductive, and immune systems when humans are exposed in larger doses.
Paper plates that are produced far away from home also come with a hefty transportation footprint. This is why we always recommend you buy local if possible.
During disposal, most paper plates are contaminated and can’t be recycled. This leads us to our next point…
Are paper plates recyclable?
So, can you recycle paper plates? While we tend to believe paper-based products are recyclable, this isn’t always the case with paper plates and other paper-based products. In fact, 36% of all landfill waste is paper products that don’t enter the recycling stream.
To recycle your paper plate, it must be…
- Free of food contamination: This means there should be no food residue on your paper plate because the recycling process cannot separate food scraps, oils, and grease from the paper. This rule also applies to pizza boxes, coffee pods, paper cups, and to-go cartons. Essentially, if you used the paper plate to eat, you probably can’t recycle it. So, can you recycle dirty or used paper plates? The answer is usually no.
- Uncoated: Most paper plates are coated in wax, plastic, or clay that prevents the plate from soaking up grease and other food oils. Like food contamination, this coating can’t be separated from the paper plates at the recycling facility. Although in rare cases, some municipalities will accept paper plates that have been coated so be sure to check with your local recycling center.
How to recycle paper plates
Almost half of all paper used in the US is recycled back into new paper products, and this includes paper plates! If your paper plate passes all the checks above and is ready to be commercially recycled, the plate will go through a series of steps to re-enter the market as a new paper-based product.
You can collect your clean plates in a recyclable trash bag and take them to your local recycling facility yourself or place them in your recycling bin for pickup if your area offers a pickup program.
At the recycling facility, your paper plates will be sorted, and recyclers will remove any contaminated plates from the pile.
Pulping, Screening, and De-inking
Next, your paper plates will be converted to pulp and any adhesives or ink will be filtered out through a screen. At this time, the inks and binders that make up the paperboard are also removed.
Now, the paper will be re-bleached to give it a bright white color.
Finally, the pulp will be rolled, dried, and cut into different sizes.
Paper plates (and other paper products) can only be recycled so many times before the fiber bonds in the paper have been repossessed to a point they are too short to form new bonds and be molded into other paper products. Generally, paper products can only be recycled five to seven times.
Are paper plates biodegradable or compostable?
I’ve said it before and I'll say it again; biodegradable and compostable products are not the same thing!
Biodegradable products can be broken down by microorganisms, but this doesn’t mean they will necessarily turn into compost. While compostable products will biodegrade (break down) into high-quality organic fertilizer under the presence of oxygen and heat.
Biodegradable products are also often designed to break down only in industrial landfills, and not in your backyard compost bin. Trash bags, for example, may be labeled as "biodegradable" but are actually made of bioplastic and shouldn’t be added to your compost bin. To know if something is biodegradable, you can look for certifications like the SCS Global Services certification, BPI issues, as well as the Japan BioPlastics Association, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
In some cases, paper plates can be a great brown item from the kitchen to add to your compost pile. Only plates that are labeled "PLA", "plastic free", or "compostable" can be added to your compost pile at home. Standard paper plates might also take longer to break down in your home compost bin. For example, Dixie Ultra Paper Plates are labeled as recyclable, compostable, and meet the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Certification standards, but might take up to six months to break down in your home compost pile.
Your paper plates decomposing times will vary depending on the condition of your compost bin, including the aeration within your bin, the moisture levels, as well as the heat levels. If you shred or cut your paper plates into smaller pieces before composting them, this can help to speed up the decomposition process.
If you are vermicomposting, I would also suggest being a little more cautious if you are recycling standard paper plates that you used to eat. Your worms might be sensitive to plates with certain food residue on them (like meat and dairy). With this in mind, standard paper plates are biodegradable, but not always compostable.
What can we use in place of paper plates?
There are tons of other eco-friendly options out there to replace standard paper plates. In general, you want to look for plates made from sustainably sourced materials (that are fully compostable) and can be used several times. As always, we also recommend you look for other standards including environmental certifications, cruelty-free labels, and ethical labor practices.
Here are some materials and products to be on the lookout for:
These plates from Chic Leaf are more from bamboo and areca palm leaf. These plates are very sturdy and don’t sag after the first use so they can be used several times which I appreciate. Plus they are microwavable!
2. Palm Leaves
ECO SOUL has compostable plates sourced from biodegradable, fallen palm leaves. They are super sturdy so they can be easily reused. They are also microwave and oven safe (for up to 340°F). They have also received a USDA BioPreffered certification.
Premium Planet also had plates sourced from palm leaves that are compostable. Their plate set comes with cutlery options too, so no more plastic cutlery!
Paper plates can also be made from leftover sugarcane during the sugar-making process. With a 4.5 star rating on Amazon, Stack Man has fully compostable paper plates made from biodegradable sugarcane fibers. Plus, they are good value for the money and will last you a long time (with each pack you get 125 plates).
I also like these sugarcane bagasse-based plates from Go Green Tableware. They are BPA-free and certified compostable.
These plates made by Perfectware are made from birchwood which doesn’t accumulate an odor. So, depending on how dirty the plate is, you can reuse it several times which is great.
5. Corn Starch
Did you know plates could be made from cornstarch? It’s true! These plates from Outime are sourced from cornstarch. They are fairly sturdy and can also withstand oven temperatures.
If you want some more examples of eco-friendly plates, I would suggest looking at the USDA Certified Biobased products database.
A final word on recycling paper plates
If you are going to recycle your paper plates, make sure they are uncoated and free from food residue! Or even better, purchase options sourced from sustainable materials like bamboo or birchwood that you can compost at home - but, be extra careful if you are vermicomposting.
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