The Greener Side of Disposable Tableware

The idea of disposable cups and plates has been frowned upon by environmentalists for years, and single-use tableware manufacturers are responding with new features that makes disposable more eco-friendly.

One of the primary examples has been the production of plastic cups and silverware from recycled plastic. The Solo Cup Company, which has been making disposable tableware since 1936, has an entire line of products made from post-consumer recycled Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Bare™ by Solo will be donating its products to this year's Keep America Beautiful Great American Cleanup, an event where disposable will be needed because there will be three million expected volunteers.

Sometimes disposable dinnerware is unavoidable, but you can make smarter choices when you're purchasing it. Photo:

Sometimes disposable dinnerware is unavoidable, but you can make smarter choices when you're purchasing it. Photo:

The cups are  about 20 percent recycled PET, which also provides a market for the tons of plastic bottles Americans recycle every year. Unlike aluminum and glass containers, it is difficult to turn recycled plastic bottles into new bottles, so many times alternative uses are sought for this recycled resin.

Taking it one step further are companies like Preserve, who produce tableware from a thicker resin of plastic that allow them to be used multiple times. Preserve makes products from 100 percent recycled polypropylene (PP), which is a less common resin of plastic that is not as widely accepted in curbside recycling programs as PET.

Disposal of Disposables

When determining if your disposable dishes can be recycled, take into consideration the following: If food can be cleaned from the product (in the case of some plastic tableware), and if it has a plastic recycling symbol that is accepted by your community, generally it can be recycled. For example, any of Preserve's products are recyclable in community programs that accept plastic number five. But when it comes to products that may absorb food, as in paper products, they will not be collected for recycling because of a number of issues:

  1. Potential contamination based on contact with food
  2. Some are coated with wax for temperature control that can't be separated during recycling

The advantage of single-use tableware made from recycled content is that while the final destination is inevitably a landfill, instead of throwing away plastic that has had one use, these cups and plates have had multiple life cycles.

Latest posts by Trey Granger (see all)

  • http://http// GreenvsGreedy

    Hi Trey,

    I use the disosable 3 section plates when my kids have friends over for lunch/dinner. I rinse in cold water and reuse the plates…so 1 package last a long time.



  • Trey Granger

    That’s true, I didn’t even address the value of reuse. Considering the costs you can spend to constantly purchase new disposable plates, reuse will also help your bank account. I think the thing to understand is that disposable doesn’t have to mean “bad for the environment,” because there are many times when disposable tableware is more practical.

  • http://http// GreenvsGreedy

    Exactly…the clean-up is real easy to as food slides off easier. I just use a little water…soak a few minutes..while clearing the rest of the table..and rinse. I prob get a years use out of 1 packet.


  • rosie palmer

    dont wash and reuse…. thats disgusting

  • Mindy

    In a restaurant, is it more eco friendly to use disposable dishes or porcelain? Are there many eco friendly restaurant dishwashers on the market?

  • Susan

    Why would washing and reusing be any more disgusting than washing and reusing regular plates and cups?

  • Nick

    Rosie: How is washing and re-using them disgusting? It’s no different from washing and reusing porcelain plates. When I was in elementary school, my mom would send disposable cutlery with my lunch so it wasn’t a huge loss if I accidentally threw it away, but they were still washable, even in the dishwasher. Don’t know that plates would hold up to that, but you can definitely hand wash them and they will be as clean as anything else.

  • Mark

    How about addressing the issue of using bio-degradable tableware made from cornstarch? You can get plates, utensils and “take-out” containers made from these next-gen. plastics. I know of many businesses (like Microsoft) that use these items in their onsite cafeterias to reduce their impact on the environment.

  • Mindy

    Thanks for the advice Mark! I have found a great website with lots of companies (
    I had no clue that these things even existed. Thanks again

  • Lars

    Mick and Mandy, please do not look only for disposal tabelware made from cornstarch (PLA). Paper Fibre and Bamboo are more environmentally friendly, made from renewable resources and also fully compostable, biodegradable or just recycle together with waste paper. Plain white, food approved and soak resistent without any special compounds or chemistry inside. Pactiv/Hefty has a big range for this items called earth choice and in Europe it is Omni-Pac.

  • Pingback: The facts on :Biodegradable | Earthly Finds()

  • JB

    I still think you can get green tableware that’s disposable. Corn plastics aren’t great, but I really trust the biodegradable plates made from sugarcane. Here’s more info:

  • Plastic buff

    Hygiene and sanitation are the other important factors that make people go for disposable dinnerware. They follow simple use and throw method. Many of the catering businesses and restaurants have now greatly benefited from these products. They help in easy clean up and there is no chance of breakage. Benefits offered by disposable paper and plastic dinnerware are more or less similar.