Are Paper Plates Bad For The Environment?

Paper plates have become the new stylish way of serving food and snacks. They’ve become indispensable for parties, small restaurants, weddings, and even roadside food vendors. They’re fast becoming a favorite because they relieve you of the stress of washing, drying, and storing regular plates.

Paper plates can be found in almost any home nowadays. Their convenience, as well as the fact that they aren’t expensive, makes their popularity undisputable. Apart from eating out of them nonetheless, they can also be used for various other things. These include crafts with kids and emergency flash cards.

These handy helpers are fast becoming a favorite among homemakers. So, it’s best to consider their effect on the environment as we become more eco-conscious. Let’s dive in as we find out whether paper plates are good for the environment and the nature of their biodegradability.

How Bad Are Paper Plates For the Environment?

When you consider the relief that comes with not having to wash or dry plates after a party or gathering, it’s easy to fall in love with paper plates. For instance, using paper plates reduces the stress of packing dishes and loading them in the dishwasher or washing them manually in the sink.

Again, you don’t have to worry about guests breaking plates during social events, making paper plates such a convenient choice.

However, the sad news is that paper plates are bad for the environment. They take up space in landfills, and because of stains, we can’t reuse or recycle them. So, unless you decide to compost the waste, paper plates are left to sit in landfills.

In addition to these, manufacturing paper plates requires the addition of chemicals and bleaches to wood pulps. This can pose a threat to the environment because the large quantity of chlorine used to produce the white paper plates can cause damage to living organisms.

This occurs when the chlorine seeps into the soil or water or when we inhale it. It can cause cancer and severe damage to the reproductive and immune systems.

Paper plates are lined with aluminum foil sometimes to make them more appealing and attractive. This prevents them from breaking down as fast as it takes other paper to decompose.

Now, we can’t recycle paper plates because of the stains caused by grease and other food items. This also causes piles of litter in landfills.

Are Paper Plates Biodegradable?

Let’s not forget that paper plates are made from wood pulp from trees. Trees are organic and are therefore biodegradable. So, the simple answer to this question is yes; paper plates are biodegradable.

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However, some paper plates are an exception to this rule. Such paper plates are coated with plastic designs such as wax to prevent water from destroying them. This coating prevents damage by reducing the rate at which the paper degrades. However, the ones that eventually degrade don’t get to this state until a significant period lapses.

Sometimes, we can tie paper plates in plastic bags or mix them with plastic waste before disposing of them. This creates an anaerobic condition that makes the degradation process more challenging.

Also, the thickness of the plates determines their biodegradability. Therefore, the thicker the paper plate, the slower it degrades and vice versa.

However, paper plates are compostable. This means that if you put them in your compost pile at home with other scraps of vegetables, paper, or grass, they’ll decompose.

Which is Better, Plastic or Paper Plates?

Plastic and paper plates are both used to make disposable plates. To determine which is better for the environment, we need to consider their differences and weigh the benefits of both.

On the one hand, plastic plates are generally cost-effective, sturdy, and durable. They’re also effortless to manufacture and distribute. Manufacturers make them from polystyrene, a polymer of styrene that is a compound of carbon and hydrogen.

They can also be made from polyethylene terephthalate or polypropylene, both of which are recyclable.

Plastic plates have an alarming effect on the environment. They release harmful chemicals that can harm the environment when decomposing, and this process can take up to fifty years. This means they also take up unnecessary space in landfills and aren’t environmentally friendly.

On the other hand, paper plates are typically made of wood pulp. They’re typically more environmentally friendly than plastic plates because they’re made from renewable resources and decompose faster.

The difference between paper and plastic plates is that plastic causes more harm to the environment than paper plates. So, it’s no surprise that we’re choosing paper plates over plastic ones

Do Paper Plates Decompose?

Paper plates decompose and break down over time. The process, however, is slower than other paper products. This is due to the extra chemicals used to make them appear more attractive and improve their integrity. But they do decompose, eventually.

Mixing items that mold easily with the paper plates such as banana peels or strawberries can increase the decomposition rate. 

How Long Does a Paper Plate Take to Decompose?

Typically, it can take about three months for paper plates to decompose. However, if you put them in a commercial compost facility, it’ll take less than that. But again, depending on the make of the plate, decomposition can occur in about 40 to 60 days.

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The material used to coat the paper plate can affect how quickly it decomposes. Those coated with wax or plastic can take as much as 10 months to decompose fully.

Also, the way it’s disposed of can affect its decomposition rate. The more moisture and heat available, the faster the decomposition rate of the plate. Paper plates used in aerated compost piles often tend to decompose faster.

Lastly, and as mentioned earlier, the thickness of the plates determines the decomposition rate. The thicker the plate, the slower the decomposition. The thinner the paper plates, however, the faster the decomposition rate. Finally, the decomposition rate becomes more accelerated if you cut up the paper plates before disposal.

6 Alternatives You Can Use Instead of Paper Plates

If you’re beginning to have doubts about using paper plates, there are a lot of alternative biodegradable plate options you can explore. In addition, they’re also compostable and sustainable. Below is a list of biodegradable plate options:

1. Sugarcane Plates

Sugarcane is an excellent material to use for plates. It’s harvested in abundance, and after it’s pressed for juice, the leftovers are what manufacturers use to create other products like plates. They’re strong, highly versatile as well as grease and cut resistant.

These are also a great alternative because they’re compostable, made from renewable material, and sustainable. They’re also economical and sturdy, so they won’t easily bend.

2. Palm Leaf Plates 

Palm leaf plates are made from the fallen leaves of the Areca palm tree. The tree sheds its dried fronds once a year as part of its growth cycle. Farmers collect the fronds, trim off the leaves and then stack them in piles to be sent to manufacturers.

The fronds, now sheaths, are washed and cleaned with water in the manufacturing plant. They’re then molded into various forms while they’re still damp. While molding, plates heated at high temperatures are pressed on the sheaths. The plates, now finished, are dried in the sun to remove excess moisture.

This product is highly sustainable – the sheaths and heat-press used when manufacturing certify their strength and sturdiness. They’re also compostable. Disposal requires you to toss it in the trash with other waste products as it decomposes quickly.

3. Bamboo Plates

Bamboo is one of the most abundant and fast-growing plants on earth. Manufacturers can make plates from the sheaths of bamboo. Once collected, they’re cleaned and boiled and then laminated to the preferred thickness for the plate. Afterward, they’re pressed and bonded into the required shape.

The impressive aspect about the manufacturing of this type of plate is that it doesn’t require chemicals or toxic substances. The sheath falls off naturally, with no harm to the bamboo plants.

The resulting plates are long-lasting and are very sturdy, making them perfect for serving heavy meals. They’re also eco-friendly and sustainable. Additionally, they’re biodegradable, making them an ideal addition to your compost pile.

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4. Biodegradable Polypropylene

These are eco-friendly plastic disposable plates that have been infused with special organic additives, usually hydrophilic parameters, to the polymer chain. We do this to speed up the decomposition process. These plates generally break down faster than typical plastic plates and are very strong.

5. Wheat Straw Plastic

Wheat straw is used to at straw is a type of edible grain used to make foods such as flour, bread, and pasta. Wheat straw is a by-product of wheat production. Combined with other food-grade materials, manufacturers can use a wheat straw to make plates. We, therefore, consider wheat straw to be bioplastic or biodegradable plastic.

To do this, wheat straw, which contains lignin, is combined with sugar to form a plastic-like substance. Lignin is the part of the plant that allows it to remain upright. This substance is then molded into different forms, in this case, plates.

Manufacturers can also turn wheat straw into a pulp that they can use to make other products. The significant benefit of this material is that it’s completely biodegradable. It’ll take just about three to six months to break down completely.

Other benefits include; it’s renewable and sustainable, it’s non-allergenic, it’s sturdy and strong without the addition of toxins. Also, it reduces waste as there’d be no need for the farmers to burn the straw. 

6. Reusable Plates 

Now we know that this completely defeats the benefit of paper plates in preventing you from cleaning and washing. But, it’s one of the best ways to reduce the harm that our increased consumption of paper plates may eventually cause the environment.

Reusable plates include those made with ceramic or glass. They’re more durable and stronger than your conventional paper plates – no matter how sturdy they are. They can be repeatedly used, washed, and stored.

Ceramic or glass plates can be used over a long time as long they don’t get broken or scratched. They’d also save some hard-earned money that’ll have been spent repeatedly purchasing paper plates. 

Ceramic and glass plates also don’t contribute to pollution and are significantly more sustainable than plastics or paper. 

Conclusion

Paper plates have a lot of benefits, especially for homemakers. But we must first consider their effects on our environment. It’s best to make eco-conscious efforts towards ensuring that the plates we choose do more good to our environment than harm.

Now that we’ve established that paper plates are harmful to the environment because they can’t be recycled but can nonetheless decompose. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to continue using them or if you’ll opt for more eco-friendly and sustainable options. 

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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.