Plastic? Foam? Paper? Sugarcane fiber?? Modern grocery stores are filled with an array of disposable plate options, but which is right for you? Is it more important for your plate to be durable or eco-friendly? Affordable or ornate? In this article, we will examine all of the commonly available types of plates so that you can make an informed decision this summer. Whether you’re planning a big fourth of July celebration, or a quick picnic in the park, we’ve got you covered.
Styrofoam seems like a natural choice for food service. It is cheap and lightweight, insulates food well, and stands up to grease and moisture. For these reasons polystyrene quickly became ubiquitous in the food service industry, especially with fast food and to-go containers. Of course, you can also find polystyrene plates in the aisles of almost any grocery store, but you might want to think twice before choosing them for your next get together.
When exposed to heat, its possible for styrofoam to leech a toxic chemical called styrene. Styrene has been identified as a probable carcinogen in humans and the use of foam plates causes huge quantities to leach into the environment each year. Moreover, styrofoam takes an incredibly long time to break down as it is not biodegradable. Instead the foam breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but never truly goes away. The styrofoam plates you use will take AT LEAST 500 years to break down and could last forever. Currently, styrofoam and other plastics make up 30% of all the waste in our landfills.
Technically, styrofoam is recyclable, but most recycling services will not accept it. Due to cheap price of polystyrene, it is simply cheaper to make more polystyrene than to attempt to recycle it. In fact it typically costs around $1000 to reclaim just $200 worth of polystyrene.
Conclusion: Not Recommended
It might surprise you that most cheap plastic plates are actually made of the same material as foam plates – polystyrene. The polystyrene used in disposable plates and solo cups doesn’t undergo a foaming process to become styrofoam, but is rather molded directly to make plates. Due to its cheap price, polystyrene is one of the most widely used plastics. It is used to create everything from yogurt containers to disposable razors.
Their price and makes them a popular choice for some people, but the brittle plastic is prone to cracking and carries many of the same health and environmental drawbacks as foam. When heated, polystyrene can break down and release styrene into your food, which is a probable human carcinogen, meaning it has been linked to cancer in several scientific studies.
Also like foam plates, plastic plates are not biodegradable. This means they will remain in our environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Polystyrene is one of the most common types of plastic litter found along shores, waterways, and in the Pacific Ocean.
Despite their popularity, there are a slew of problems which arise from the continued use of polystyrene products. If you are at all worried about your family’s health or the environment, it is probably best to avoid polystyrene altogether.
Conclusion: Not Recommended
It might surprise you that making and using paper plates take 60% more material and generates 35% more greenhouse gas when compared to foam plates. However, since paper doesn’t leech toxic chemicals and stay around for thousands of years, it is still a big upgrade in terms of environmental friendliness. Paper typically breaks down in under a year and is primarily made of organic materials, though most contain small amounts of oils, bleaches, and chemicals.
Paper, as you probably know, is made from trees. Unlike plastic and foam, which are made from fossil fuels, trees used to make paper products are considered a renewable resource. However, trees used for paper can still take 20 years or more to grow, and a demand for paper products is taking its toll. The production of paper products accounts for approximately 10% of deforestation worldwide.
Despite this, if paper is the only option available to you, it definitely beats plastic and coated alternatives.
Not all paper plates are created equal. “Heavy duty” paper plates often are laminated with a layer of plastic to help them hold up to grease and liquids. Their improved performance often comes with higher prices, but also has severe environmental repercussions. In a lot of ways, poly coated plates combine the worst aspects of both foam and paper from an environmental perspective.
Like paper, poly-coated plates are resource intensive and contribute to deforestation. Meanwhile, the plastic coatings remain in the environment for hundreds of years after the paper has decomposed and can leech small amounts of toxic chemicals into food, especially when exposed to high heat.
Unfortunately, its not always easy to tell a poly coated plate apart from a regular paper plate. Keep an eye out for the telltale shiny coating if you want to avoid poly-coated plates or look for an alternative like bagasse (which are never coated with plastic) if available.
Conclusion: Not Recommended
Bagasse products can sometimes be slightly more expensive than other disposable plate options, but the have several usability and environmental benefits. Bagasse is another name for sugarcane fiber, which is a natural waste product of sugarcane. Unlike paper pulp which is sourced from slow growing trees, sugarcane are a rapidly renewable resource, reaching maturity in under a year.
Good bagasse products are some of the most durable disposable plates you can find. Like poly-coated or polystyrene plates, they can stand up to moisture and grease with ease. Bagasse products are microwave safe and can withstand temperatures higher than the boiling point of water. They don’t bend easily like paper or crack like plastic.
Besides durability, they are by far the most environmentally friendly plate we’ve talked about. Not only is sugarcane fiber a rapidly renewable resource, but it is also considered a waste product, meaning that it requires no additional resources or land to produce. In fact, growing sugarcane helps to combat global warming by absorbing up to 0.66 TONS of CO2 per hectare. Researches have suggested that expanding sugarcane production could reduce global CO2 emissions by 5.6%!
Even if thrown away, bagasse will break down quickly into harmless organic biomass in a landfill and won’t remain as litter on our planet. However, bagasse can also be composted in your own backyard and be transformed into rich, fertile soil to continue the cycle of life.
Some retailers have begun carrying bagasse products, so its worth keeping an eye out for them at your local store, but if you want to be sure to get them for your next outdoor get together, party, wedding, or other event, you can visit BioGreenChoice on Amazon to order bagasse plates, platters, and bowls of all shapes and sizes year round.
With 4th of July coming up and cookout season beginning in earnest, we hope this information has helped you make an informed decision! The choice is yours, but we hope reading this article has made you think about the impact that small decisions can have on you, your family, and our planet.