Thursday, May 17, 2012

What do you do with old Disposable Dishes?

The Climate Crusader debates what to do with the disposable plastic dishes she already owns.

The Bad Old Days

In my last post, I advocated for using real dishes and cutlery - rather than disposables - at a kids' birthday party. I think it's a solid idea. However, like many people, I'm on a journey towards more sustainable living. I wasn't always as aware of my environmental footprint as I am today. Back in the bad old days, I bought a bunch of disposable plastic cups. I bought so many, in fact, that I still have dozens taking up space in a high cupboard in my kitchen.
These days I'm certainly not buying new disposable cups. But what of the disposable cups that are already in my possession? The packages they came in are already open, so I'm pretty sure no one else wants them. They already exist, they're mine, and now I need to decide what to do with them. As I see it, I have a few options:

  1. Use the disposables I already have until they're all gone, and then go reusable from there on out.
  2. Just chuck the disposables. It will de-clutter the shelf in my kitchen, and they're going to end up in the landfill sooner or later anyway, so why not sooner?
  3. Use the disposables judiciously, perhaps even washing them between uses to get as much wear out of them as possible, and then go reusable once they've fully expired.

Image credit: Arvind Grover on Flickr

Making a Decision

There are some factors to consider as I make my decision. The first thing I'm considering is that the more use I can get out of the disposables I already have in my possession, the better for the planet. If I can use a disposable cup five times instead of one time, I'm going to go through the cups that much more slowly, which is probably a good thing.

But is it safe to reuse a plastic cup that's meant for one use only? The answer to that simply isn't clear. Disposable items are generally pretty flimsy, which means that they're more likely to bend and break, and give way to the stress of multiple uses. As this happens, the plastic could be leaching harmful chemicals. Not so good. However, there really isn't solid evidence one way or the other for what the actual danger level is. Most of the warnings about the dangers of reuse come from the people who make the disposable item, who are invested in you buying more of them.

Last summer at the BlogHer conference our food was served on disposable dishes. I decided to tote a plate and bowl around with me, washing them between uses. For myself, I made the decision that the risks of reusing were low enough that I would do what I could to reduce my environmental footprint. I think I'll take the same approach with the disposable cups I already have in my house. I'll use them as many times as I can before I get rid of them, and hopefully reduce the waste I produce in the process.

I wonder what you would do. How would you handle a bunch of disposable dishes that you already had in your house? Would you use them, reuse them, or just toss them outright?


AP said...

Maybe your daughter's school could use them, or a local organization (church, civic group, etc). Maybe a relay for life team could use them? And there will be lots of grad parties coming up here soon. As you said, you don't want to promote the disposables but if they're going to use them anyway, its worth ditching the ones you won't use.

knutty knitter said...

I just shove mine in the dishwasher - they've lasted about 5 years so far and get used almost every day! That was something I didn't expect!!! They will eventually go in the recycle after they break but I think that batch must have been cast iron or something. I refuse to ever buy any more though.

The rest of the plastic has long since been given away or recycled. I prefer real plates anyhow and never really used the one pack of paper plates I got about 30 years back. They went into a free box at our gate for whoever wanted them. (we get heaps of foot traffic and lots of students live in this area too.)

viv in nz

Helena said...

I had some languishing too, and when I realized that my LLL group was using disposables for refreshments--and that they were going to continue to do so--I donated all my disposable plates, cutlery, and cups to the group. They were happy to save money on buying that stuff, and didn't care that the packages were open, and I was happy to have the space in my laundry closet. So maybe take a look around at the groups you or your family are in to see if there's someone who can use that stuff for meeting refreshments or something.

Erica / Northwest Edible Life said...

I'd turn those suckers into little pots to start my plants in. Drill some holes in the bottom and you've got a great size for starting large things like tomatoes, peppers and squash. And you can reuse these "plant pots" for years if you want.

Kate said...

I save them until I find out someone I know is going to be buying them anyway, then I very diplomatically pawn them off. "Here, have a 500 pack of straws that I bought before I had scruples. I mean....before I stopped using them because I'm such a great environmentalist...I mean...Look! Free stuff!"
Yeah, not like that.

Zoƫ said...

Don't use them for their intended purpose - make a light shade/chandelier!

Have a look at this website for some ideas:
and then look at this one for some example instructions:

I wish I had some old plastic cups lying around now :D

Sarah said...

I too would try to find somewhere to donate them - a church group or an organization that is going to use disposable anyways, a school/art center so they can be used for craft projects, use them for your own crafty purposes (I really liked the suggestion for turning them into plant starters!) I would also put a couple in my car, for those 'emergency' nibbles.

But I would get them out of the house - it will make you feel better to have them gone, not taking up space, and not having to worry about them. Rest easy knowing you put them in good hands - so they are getting used.

Elizabeth said...

Give plates and cups to church for VBS and Sunday School craft projects. Bigger paper plates can make visors to be decorated, smaller plates make good paint pallettes, 2 plates can be stapled together , decorated and filled with beans to make music makers. Cups can become little planters for seedlings. Also can be taped together with beans inside for music shakers.

Join freecycle in your area and offer them up.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin