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Single-use plastic tableware and its alternatives - recommendations by the UNEP

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Context - This report summarises current knowledge about the environmental performance of single-use plastic tableware and alternatives and offers recommendations to policy makers asked to regulate their uses.

Reusable tableware consistently outperforms single-use tableware in all the studies and across most environmental impact categories (with water use being the exception, because of washing).

A number of alternatives to single-use plastic tableware indeed exist along with new business models to facilitate the tableware’s reuse, as well as better end-of-life management options for single-use alternatives1.

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2021 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): "Single-use plastic tableware and its alternatives – Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments " 

  • Source document:UNEP (2021)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 20 May 2021

1. Introduction

There is scarcely a habitat on earth that is not, in some way, affected by plastic pollution. The proliferation of plastic products in the past few decades has been exceptional. Cheap, durable and flexible, plastic production has soared to 348 million tons in 2017 and is on track to double in size by 2040.

Tableware are some of the many plastic products that are contributing to this plastic problem as the vast majority of these are thrown away after a single use. Due to their present low recycling potential, much of it ends up in landfill or is discarded as harmful litter in the environment, rivers and oceans, ultimately ending up on beaches.

In 2019, plastic cutlery was one of the top 10 items collected on beaches as reported by the Ocean Conservancy reported and The Pew Charitable Trusts warns that, without action, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean alone will nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tonnes per year. This is equivalent of 50 kg of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide.

2. What method was used to evaluate the impact of single use plastics?

In the present global analysis of the environmental impact of tableware, the following materials were considered:

  • Bio-based plastic, single-use: biodegradable thermoplastic made from renewable resources (PLA and starch-based biopolymer) ;
  • Single-use fossil-based plastic: various forms of polystyrene (PS) and polypropylene (PP) ;
  • Paper (single-use): LDPE (Low density polyethylene)-lined paper and wax-lined paper ;
  • Single-use wood-fibre based (CTMP) and bagasse-fibre based;
  • Reusable fossil-based plastic: Polypropylene;
  • Other reusable materials: porcelain, melamine and stainless steel.

The report is based on the analysis of six Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies which are well-established tools for assessing the potential environmental impacts of such materials. Such LCAs provide a robust framework for analysing environmental impacts along an entire product value chain and life cycle.

By accounting for a wide range of environmental consequences and highlighting knock-on effects, these LCAs allow then to promote future-focused decision making while attempting to improve systems as a whole, not just singular problems by:

  • Creating awareness that decisions are not isolated, but that they influence a larger system
  • Promoting decision making for the longer term by considering all environmental issues and potential knock-on effects associated with a decision choice
  • Improving entire systems, and not just single parts of systems, by avoiding decisions that fix one problem but cause another unexpected issue ;

3. What were the main results of the various LCA studies considered?

A key take-out from this global analysis is that reusable tableware outperforms single-use tableware across all environmental impact categories. In all catering contexts considered (hospital, school and hotel), reusable tableware has lower environmental impacts than the single-use options.

More specifically, reusable porcelain dishes have significantly lower impacts than single-use dishesmade from bio-plastic, cellulose pulp or fossil-based plastic, with the exception of water resource use due to washing the reusable dish between uses.

For both conventional and compostable single-use plastic tableware, the manufacturing phase, including both material production and product manufacture, accounts for the majority of their impacts.

For single-use plates, the weight of the product is an important factor, regardless of the material used for all impact categories. Also, the majority of associated greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions are the result of the combustion of fossil fuels for the production process while transportation accounts for only a very small portion of the energy use (less than 3%).

End-of-life waste treatment is also an important contributor to life cycle impacts: recycling/composting or a combination of the two with incineration and/or landfill is better than just landfill. In this context, the co-disposal with food waste (and other tableware made of different materials) presents either a challenge or an opportunity for waste management.

In the comparison of the environmental performance of biodegradable and compostable single-use tableware, a study showed that, in 8 out of the 15 impact categories and as a result of their feedstock production, these products have a higher impact than petroleum-based plastic tableware.

Other key take-outs of this study showed that:

  • Bio-plastic cutlery, if industrially composted along with the organic waste, has lower impacts than polystyrene cutlery that is sent to landfill or incinerated together with the food waste.
  • For paper plates, paper production is a significant contributor to both freshwater eutrophication and human toxicity (non-cancer effects) and a key uncertainty to consider is assumptions on their decomposition in landfill, which can influence results significantly.
  • For the most significant human toxicity impact categories (non-cancer and cancer) and for freshwater ecotoxicity, bioegradable and compostable products perform better than petrolum-based products.

This matrix attempts to capture the main variables and their effect on the different tableware alternatives
Life Cycle Assessments of Tableware:
What the science tell us

4. What particularly important lesson has to be taken into account from the analysis of these LCAs?

The report highlights that, as the “tableware system” sits within a wider social, economic and environmental system, a systemic (or system) approach is imperative.

The LCA studies demonstrate indeed the need for such a system approach in assessing tableware options in that both the raw material production and the end-of-life stages are important determinants of their environmental impacts in single-use options, whilst the use phase is most important stage in the reusable tableware options.

In seeking to address plastic pollution, policy makers and other decision makers are thus faced, like in all complex and irreductible challenges our societies are facing, with a complex terrain in which available data are limited and often contested, and they need to make factually global balance of the number of potential impacts.

5. What are the recommendations made by the report to policy makers to manage single-use plastics?

The report is not intended to provide definitive environmental guidance on the “best” tableware choice and, in so doing, promote policies that prohibit or limit their use or that of other alternatives. Rather, it serves to highlight important aspects that policy makers should consider when evaluating factual environmental impact data (often in the form of LCA studies) to inform policy development that is context-specific and locally relevant.

The key take-out from this meta-analysis is therefore that, considering that reusable tableware is clearly environmentally preferable to single use tableware, policy measures should be established to make the reusable option the most practical option for all stakeholders. Meanwhile, policy makers should also consider policy measures that ensure that the alternative reusable options meet health and safety considerations and, at the same time, support measures that minimise the impacts from washing.

The report also underlines that, considering the growing consumer awareness about the environmental impacts of single-use plastic products, the risks for producers and governments in not acting to regulate plastic production and consumption are increasing.

6. Are there additional elements recommended for policy makers to consider?

The additional elements of the report to be considered by policy makers include the following:

  1. Policies must be based on several sources of information for environmental impact. But LCA results on environmental impacts need to be considered together with sources of relevant information on other relevant aspects such as health and safety, which are also important to be considered in food systems;

  2. Policies must recognise that end-of-life management is an important contributor to the environmental impacts of single-use tableware.

  3. Policies must be adapted to regional and country-specific differences. Parameters such as energy mix and waste management technologies and efficiencies, as well as local recycling rates, are influential, and can differ significantly by geographic region.

  4. Policies must recognise and manage trade-offs and the risks of burden-shifting between different environmental impacts. In particular, the tendency of LCA studies and policy makers to focus on single issues, most notably climate change, should be overcomed.

  5. Policies should account for probable future innovative developments in production processes and related systems.

1 UNEP (2018) Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability.
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