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I avoid using disposable plates as much as possible, but there are situations where that's not an option, such as at company events. And in those situations, I'm sometimes faced with deciding between a paper plate and a plastic plate. My guess is that plastic plates in the landfill are worse than paper ones, since paper seems more biodegradable... but is this the case? Has the difference in environmental impact been quantified anywhere?

Assumptions:

  • Theses are regular plastic plates. Not biodegradable.
  • The plate that gets used will go into the trash
  • All leftover plates that don't get used at the event do not go into the trash
  • A relevant factor might be what happens to the left-over plates of each type at the end of the event. Are they saved for the next event or discarded? Put another way, does choice about which plate to use have an impact on the number of plates of each type discarded? – Jean-Paul Calderone Aug 22 '18 at 18:48
  • Does the final destination have to be a landfill? Plastic plates could be washed and recycled, whereas paper plates soiled with greasy food can typically only go to the landfill. – LShaver Aug 22 '18 at 19:46
  • There also is biodegradable plastic... as discussed here: sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/2509/… - non-biodegradable plastic is the worst and has high probability to end directly in our children oceans. – J. Chomel Aug 23 '18 at 6:01
  • @J.Chomel not if it's going into a properly maintained landfill, which is the assumption here. Part of me thinks that oil (in the form of plastic) being buried in a landfill is better than trees (in the form of paper) being buried in a landfill, where they will eventually release their stored carbon to the atmosphere, but I don't have anything to back this up. – LShaver Aug 23 '18 at 14:04
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If the plates are going to a landfill it doesn't matter. Recently in Los Angeles they had reason to dig in a landfill, and found that 50 year old newspapers were still readable. In the anaerobic conditions in a landfill decomposition is nil.

So the decision of paper vs plastic needs to be made for other reasons: Look at the energy used to make them, ship them, resources used.

Another consideration is 're-usable plastic' I've seen an upsurge here for 'party plates' They are thin shiny plastic, fairly stiff that will accept a few dozen washings. Too light for the dishwasher though.

If you are the coordinator of such events, you can also rent plates.

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