What is the better option of plastic

Disposable Plastic Tableware and Alternatives - Recommendations of the United Nations Environment Program

1 Introduction

There is hardly a living space on earth that is not affected in some form by pollution from plastic waste. The increase in plastic products over the past few decades is remarkable. The production of cheap, durable and flexible plastic has increased to 348 million tons in 2017 and is expected to double by 2040.

Among the many plastic products that contribute to this problem are dishes, as most parts are thrown away after a single use. Due to their currently low recycling potential, a large part of the disposable tableware ends up in the landfill or is disposed of in the environment, in rivers and in the oceans and ends up on the beaches.

According to the Ocean Conservancy plastic cutlery was one of the top 10 items collected on beaches in 2019 and The Pew Charitable Trusts warns that the entry of plastics into the world's oceans alone will almost triple to 29 million tons per year by 2040 if no measures are taken. This corresponds to 50 kg of plastic for every meter of coastline worldwide.

2. Which procedure was used to assess the impact of single-use plastics?

In the present global analysis of the environmental impact of tableware, the following materials were examined:

  • Bio-based plastics, Disposable: biodegradable thermoplastic from renewable sources (PLA and biopolymer based on starch);
  • Disposable plastic based on fossil fuels: various forms of polystyrene (PS) and polypropylene (PP);
  • Paper (disposable): Paper with LDPE coating (low density polyethylene) and wax coating
  • Disposable based on Wood fiber (CTMP) and bagasse fibers;
  • Reusable plastic based on fossil fuels: Polypropylene;
  • Other reusable materials: Porcelain, melamine and stainless steel.

The report is based on the analysis of six life cycle assessment studies (LCA, Life cycle assessment), which are well-established tools for assessing the potential environmental impact of these materials. These LCAs provide a robust framework for analyzing the environmental impact of the entire value chain and the life cycle of a product.

By taking into account a wide range of environmental impacts and illuminating the domino effect, these LCAs can then enable future-oriented decision-making and seek to improve the systems as a whole rather than just fix individual problems by:

  • Awareness is created for itthat decisions are not isolated, but affect a larger system
  • Long-term decision-making is encouragedby taking into account all environmental issues and possible domino effects associated with a decision.
  • Complete systems are improved and not just individual parts of the system and by avoiding decisions that solve a problem but cause unexpected problems.

3. What are the main results of the various LCA studies?

An important finding from this global analysis is that reusable Tableware scores better in all environmental categories. In all catering areas (Hospital, school and hotel), reusable tableware has shown a lower environmental impact than single-use options.

In particular, reusable porcelain tableware has a significantly lower environmental impact than disposable tableware made of bioplastic, cellulose or fossil plastic, apart from the water consumption caused by washing the reusable tableware between uses.

For both conventional and compostable plastic disposable tableware, most of the environmental impact comes from the manufacturing phase, including material production and product manufacturing.

For disposable plates, product weight is an important factor in all impact categories, regardless of the material used. In addition, the majority of the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the result of burning fossil fuels in the production process, while transport accounts for only a very small part of energy consumption (less than 3%).

End-of-shelf waste treatment also contributes significantly to the life cycle impact: recycling / composting or a combination of both, including incineration or dumping in a landfill, is better than just landfilling. In this context, the disposal of food waste (and other dishes made of various materials) represent either a challenge or an opportunity for waste management.

When comparing the environmental performance of biodegradable and compostable disposable tableware, a study showed that in 8 out of 15 impact categories these products have a higher environmental impact than petroleum-based plastic tableware due to their primary material production.

Other important results from this study:

  • Bioplastic cutlery that is industrially composted together with organic waste has less of an impact than polystyrene cutlery that is stored in landfills or incinerated with food waste.
  • In the case of paper plates, paper production contributes significantly to the overfertilization of fresh water and human toxicity (non-carcinogenic effect) and there is considerable uncertainty about the assumptions regarding their decomposition at the landfill, which can significantly influence the results.
  • In the most important impact categories human toxicity (non-carcinogenic and carcinogenic effects) and ecotoxicity do biodegradable and compostable products better than petroleum-based products.

Life Cycle Assessments of Tableware:
What the science tell us

4. In particular, what important lessons must be learned from the analysis of this LCA?

The report underlines that the "tableware system" needs to be seen in a broader social, economic and environmental system and thus a systemic approach (or systems approach) absolutely necessary is.

Indeed, the LCA studies highlight the need for one System approach when evaluating dish options to the effect that raw material production and disposal steps are important influencing factors for the environmental impact of single-use options, while the usage phase is the most important phase for reusable options.

In attempting to address the issue of plastic pollution, policymakers and other policymakers are faced with a complex area, where the data available are limited and often controversial, and they must, in effect, draw a global balance of the multitude of possible impacts - like ours Society faces this in all complex and virtually unsolvable challenges.

5. What recommendations does the report give policy makers for dealing with single-use plastics?

The report is not intended to provide definitive environmental guidance on choosing the "best" tableware; rather, it supports strategies to prohibit or restrict the use of this or that alternative. Rather, it serves to highlight important aspects that policy makers consider when evaluating facts about the impact on the environment (often in the form of LCA studies) should be considered in order to enable context-specific and locally relevant policy development.

The main conclusion from this meta-analysis is, therefore, that given that reusable tableware is clearly ecologically preferable to disposable tableware, political measures should be taken to make the reusable option the most viable option for all concerned. In the meantime, policy makers should also consider policies that will ensure that the alternative reusable options meet health and safety concerns while supporting measures that minimize the effects of flushing.

The report also highlights that with growing consumer awareness about the environmental impact of single-use plastic products, the risks for manufacturers and governments if they fail to act to regulate the production and consumption of plastic increase.

6. What recommendations does the report give policy makers for dealing with single-use plastics?

The report also includes the following factors for policy makers to consider:

  1. Policy decisions must be based on multiple sources of information on environmental impacts. However, LCA results on environmental impacts need to be considered in food systems as well, along with sources of information on other relevant issues such as health and safety.

  2. Politicians must recognize that waste management has to make an important contribution to the environmental impact of single-use tableware.

  3. Political measures need to be adapted to regional and country-specific differences. Parameters such as the energy mix and technological, efficient waste management as well as local recycling rates have an influence and can vary considerably depending on the geographical region.

  4. Political measures must recognize and manage compromises and risks of shifting environmental burdens between different environmental impacts. In particular, the tendency of LCA studies and political decision-makers to focus on individual topics - and especially on climate change - should be overcome.

  5. Policy should be based on possible future, innovative developments have a share in production processes and the associated systems.

1 UNEP (2018) Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability. (UN Environment Program (2018) Single-Use Plastics: A Guide to Sustainability).
Available under: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf.