Flatware: Reusable or Disposable?

June 2014

Flatware: Reusable or Disposable?

For the sake of convenience, plastic flatware is hands down the obvious choice, even more so among college students. However the answer to which one is better from a sustainability viewpoint, does not just lie in the manufacturing of the materials for disposable and durable goods such as plastic and metal flatware. This is also a question of how they will be used and cleaned. Is it better to hand-wash dishes, or to use a dishwasher? After performing both methods, I have found that it is more efficient from a cleanliness standpoint to wash dishes myself. Of course nowadays, you are rivaled against newer, more energy-efficient dishwashers that use half the energy, less water, AND soap. Answering the question of plastic vs. metal lies both in the manufacturing of the product and in its use. The economic efficiency of metal flatware depends on whether the flatware being used over many years can take the place of perhaps hundreds of disposable spoons, forks and knives. Of course, plastic flatware wins in the fact that it does not require washing, and the metal flatware’s manufacture becomes so irrelevant that we can say that it is inconsequential. So the assessment then turns into the energy and water required to wash the metal flatware vs. the energy and water used to produce, transport and dispose of plastic flatware.

Washing the Flatware

The impact of washing flatware has a broad scope. If washed by hand, it will require less energy and water than using an older-model dishwasher, but more than a brand new energy-star model. The efficiency with which you load the machine becomes important as well because every inch counts, but you don't want it packed so full that flatware and dishes still come out dirty, (as they always do).

Disposing the Flatware

In the case of disposing flatware, the situation becomes far more complicated. These utensils must be manufactured, packaged and transported over great distances to their final destination. After this long journey, the flatware is used for about two minutes before being thrown into the trashcan. Afterwards, the used cutlery is transported to its final resting place in a giant hole in the ground. Here it will sit for thousands of years, never decaying.

The Winner

The answer would vary from user to user but in most cases the reusable cutlery will win over plastic disposables. There’s a time and place for disposables; outdoors events like picnicking, or anything that is far removed from modern plumbing. Go green by going reusable, even if it involves one-minute of your time cleaning it afterword.