Paper, dishwashing, and environmental impact

At school this past year, I would feel a flutter of environmental guilt every time I used a styrofoam (polystyrene for you international types) cup, which was often. Someone posited to me that, as we were in a country where water resources were scarce (Israel), it was more responsible to use a disposable cup than to use water to wash a re-usable cup, especially because of the potentially negative effect of adding soap to the water supply.

My question is, which of the following options is truly best for, or least damaging to, the environment? Does the answer change if water is in short supply in the country?

  1. Using a paper cup and throwing it away
  2. Using a styrofoam cup and throwing it away
  3. Using a plastic cup and recycling it
  4. Using a glass and washing it with water and soap

Instinctively, I’d assume that throwing away either a paper or styrofoam cup is more damaging than either of the other two options, though I don’t really know, but I wonder about the other two.

Also, does putting soap into the water supply through dishwashing actually have a deleterious effect on the environment, or was that a mistaken premise?

You also need to think about the quantities involved - for instance, if each person at a company, or in a house, used 1 mug, and then ran dishwater or the dishwasher to wash just that mug, that would have a completely different effect than waiting until everybody was finshed and washing a full load of dishes with the same amout of water.

(and did you mean a paper cup and then recycling it? 'Cause around here, you can’t recycle a plastic cup…)

I admit I don’t have the answer but this is a VERY complicated question and many adamant environmentalist types don’t seem to be able to know where to begin with such things.

I will only make a couple of peripheral points. The number of trees in the U.S. is increasing thanks in large part to the lumber and paper industries. They replant more than they take down and young trees are the ones best at sucking up harmful atmospheric gases. This has been true for a long time and it is a gigantic improvement over times like the early 1900’s when a lot of the East Coast was clear-cut and looked little like today. A case could easily be made that using lumber and paper products actually adds trees as a whole oddly enough.

The second point is that water isn’t a nonrenewable resource. If you live in a water rich area like here in Eastern Massachusetts, conserving water isn’t going to do one thing to help the people in the desert Southwest and, no matter how much you water your lawn, there is going to be about the same amount of water around next year. We don’t use water in the way that we do other things. We pollute it (usually lightly) and it tends to recycle itself just fine but we help things along with water treatment plants. The immediate problem would be taxing a reservoir too hard so that it has immediate supply problems but that is a human rather than an environmental concern.

We could go all day like this and it could make a lively debate. It is a complicated issue even for mundane things.

I didn’t know you could recycle a paper cup; I’m just going on the package of basic plastic cps in my kitchen, each of which has a little recycling symbol on the bottom.

Interesting, Shangnasty. I wonder if the paper use issue applies to the wax-coated paper cups I usually see.

Making a new paper, plastic, or glass cup even in mass quantity would use a lot more resources than washing it with water anytime to make it usable again. In after use disposal you look at what the detriments of disposal are. Paper will be around the shortest time after disposal, then plastic, and finally glass. You need toi decide what is worse to deal with breaking down. Glass in non toxic, and you only have to deal with it’s potential to cut and it wares down in waves readily. Plastic can cut, doesn’t wear down in waves as fast as glass, and has organic chemicals that can interact with living organisms. Paper will fall apart the fastest, and beak down into compounds that are not very harmful to living organisms.

Soap will break down over time, and until it does soap can kill some things. Put a fish in dishwater and you get my point. The biggest problem with soap is from before they banned phosphates. It fertilizes lake plants to grow into a thick scummy mass. The natural source of the phosphate that’s bad for lakes is bird droppings. Once in the lakes it recycles yearly as the plants die and regrow.

I choose this order for most environmentally friendly. Glass, paper, plastic. and only washing them when needed. You don’t need to wash a glass every time you drink something, so think of that if you wish to use less resources. You may choose something else as better, because of different circumstances. You can always add in a hand chiseled cup to produce even less hazardous waste, and clean it with ultraviolet sunshine. You can heat it to sterilize it, when heating the home and count the energy towards making the home livable.

The recycling symbol doesn’t mean it is recyclable. It only identifies the type of plastic for anybody that wants to know. It only aids in separating types for the ones you do recycle.

Here’s one guy’s reasoning and results. Conclusion: foam cups are probably best, unless one is reusing the cup hundreds or even a thousand times and washing it with a very energy efficient dishwasher.

I don’t endorse these claims, mind. I merely present them for discussion.

Yeah, but that’s only from an energy standpoint. You have to look at the afterlife of a cup for its total environmental impact.

Plastics (including Styrofoam) are damaging to water life. They break down slowly, and when they become small little nodules, many types of lifeforms will try and eat them resulting in a variety of side effects, including death.

So if we dispose of them properly (in sealed landfills), does that change the environmental impact? I agree that littered plastics and polystyrene foam present a problem.

And on that note, we must factor in that “biodegradable” paper cups aren’t biodegradable if they’re locked in landfills with no sun, water or oxygen. (I think.)

The number of trees may well be important from a climate change perspective, though I doubt it since coniferous trees in the US contribute pretty insignificantly to carbon trapping. But merely replanting trees does not remedy the other ecological consequences of the timber industry, including biodiversity, clean water, and erosion issues, among others. So the environmental consequences of paper product usage are still quite significant (though less so than other timber since paper cups are probably mostly low-grade wood from tree farms).

In fact, if we dispose of them in landfills that don’t allow decomposition, don’t they become part of a carbon sink that subtracts some from the carbon dioxide produced in the energy required for production?

That is another good point. I like where this thread is going. You rarely here anyone, including academics, looking at the system as a whole when it comes to environmental issues. This stuff is complicated.

I think in general creating a truly sealed landfill is extremely difficult if not impossible. Nature likes to move shit. I believe that Weisman’s “The World Without Us” stated that a lot of the plastic in the ocean actually came from landfills. But I’ll have to verify this when I get home.

Generally, if bio-degradable objects are locked in a landfill, they pose no issue because of the fact that they’re locked in a landfill (and as stated above, they may even be a carbon sink). And if they get knocked loose, they then degrade. So, either situation is okay. It’s non-biodegradable objects outside landfills that pose the biggest problem.

A quote from The World Without Us:

The gyre quoted is the texas-sized vortex between California and Hawaii that seems to pull in all floating trash.

You’re missing one (based on comments from an uncle who served in WWII desert warfare):

  1. Using a glass and ‘washing’ it with sand, then wiping clean with a cloth.

Totally complicated.

Doorstep collections for recycling in my area (Gloucestershire, UK) include garden waste, paper, tin cans and glass. Plastic and cardboard are not collected. I store such items in sacks and periodically take them to a recycling centre. There is a limit as to how much of this stuff I can keep at home and I’ve often wondered what volume or weight of plastic and cardboard would justify the car journey.

One problem we have which probably doesn’t arise in the US, and maybe elsewhere, is landfill capacity. There is enough for about 10 years. This rather concentrates the mind.

My brother had a similar dilemma when his son was born. Use a diaper service that washes cloth diapers for re-use or use disposable diapers (washing cloth at home was not an option). At the time there seemed to be no clear-cut answer.

Surely the plastic cups are washed at some point in the process between the rat-hair-and-grease-covered assembly line and the sealed package. If only to prevent lawsuits. On an industrial scale, I’d think that the washing is more water-efficient than my home dishwasher. But still, there must be washing involved. Plus raw materials, transport, manufacture, packaging, distribution, marketing, my driving to the store to buy more plastic cups vs. how often I drive out to buy glassware, and of course recycling/landfill afterward.

I’d be quite surprised if the total impact of disposable cups was lower than washed reusable glassware.


What are the costs of manufacturing the cups? Plastic ones are still petroleum-based products, which means there are probably nasty byproducts of manufacturing, and paper ones would require bleach and other paper-making chemicals. Granted, there would be an environmental cost to making a reusable cup as well, but you would be producing far less pollutants per cup-use than with the disposables.

You also need to think about the quantities involved - for instance, if each person at a company, or in a house, used 1 mug, and then ran dishwater or the dishwasher to wash just that mug, that would have a completely different effect than waiting until everybody was finshed and washing a full load of dishes with the same amout of water.

Does anyone NOT wait until the dishwasher is reasonably full before washing their stuff?

If they do they need more mugs! :smiley:

They don’t wash disposable cups after manufacture. They don’t wash the cardboard containers out before putting food in them. They just keep the area reasonably clean, through the stages the packaging goes through.