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

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 metric tons in 2017 and is on track to double in size by 2040.

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

    In 2019, the Ocean Conservancy2 reported that plastic cutlery was one of the top 10 items collected on beaches and a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts3 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, the equivalent of 50kg of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide.

    The meta-analysis provided by this report serves to highlight important aspects (often in the form of Life Cycle Assessments or LCA studies) that policy makers should consider when evaluating environmental information to support policy developments that have to be context specific and locally relevant.


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

      The present report is based on a meta-analysis of six Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies. LCA are a well-established tools used for assessing the potential environmental impacts associated with a product or service, providing a structured framework within which it is possible to model its consequences on the natural environment and society.

      The life cycle inventory is assessed by connecting resources used, their inputs and outputs being summed up and their emissions associated to the corresponding impacts on the environment, ecosystemsand human health. By this way, LCAs allow to:

      • Create awareness that decisions will not be isolated, and influence a larger system ;
      • Promote decision making for the longer term by considering all environmental issues and potential knock-on effects associated with each decision choice;
      • Improve entire systems, and not just single parts of the systems, by avoiding decisions that fix one problem but indirectly cause another unexpected issue ;

      LCAs provide thus a robust framework for analysing environmental impacts along the entire product value chain and life cycle, considering different material inputs and subsequent life cycle stages, such as use and end-of life. This promotes future-focused decision-making by accounting for a wide range of environmental consequences and highlighting knock-on effects, while attempting to improve systems as a whole, not singular problems.

      Especially valuable is an LCA’s ability to highlight hotspots along the value chain (i.e. show the areas of highest potential impact), and also to highlight trade-offs between different sustainability impacts.

      3. How was this LCA approach used to analyse single use plastics?

        The Life cycle Analysis studies were grouped in two distinct clusters:

        • LCA studies comparing single-use tableware;
        • LCA studies comparing single-use and reusable tableware.

        While there are multiple variables that affect the environmental impacts of both single-use and reusable tableware– including materials used in their production and end-of-life treatment – the analysis demonstrated that reusable tableware consistently outperforms single-use tableware in all the studies and across all environmental impact categories (with water use being the exception, because of their washing).

        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: Poplypropylene;
        • Other reusable materials: porcelain, melamine and stainless steel.

        The different LCA studies reviewed in this report were included into an easy-to-read matrix based on geographical, technological and behavioural contexts under the various scenarios that takes a snapshot of the relative preference for specific tableware.

        4. What are the critical parameters influencing the environmental impacts of tableware and its alternatives?

          Based on the meta-analysis of the various LCAs of single-use tableware and their alternatives, the following parameters and variables needed to be considered were:

          • Materials and energy: The type of material and material weight per use;
          • End-of-life: particularly regarding the decomposition of bio-based materials in landfill, and the age and quality of the data used (with some data sets recognised to be out of date);
          • Geographical context: the environmental impact of tableware being shown to be strongly influenced by the location of production (in particular the associated electricity grid mix), end-of-life technologies applied, usage context and, to a lesser extent, user behaviour.
          • Composting which becomes a favourable waste-treatment option where the usage context allows for the collection of a homogenous waste stream of food waste and compostable tableware;
          • Consumer behaviour which is important to consider in terms of how consumers use and dispose of tableware, for example, biodegradable items being kept separate from general waste or disposed of with other single-use items ;
          • Choice of environmental impact indicators: to assess in the LCA all types of environmental impacts in order to understand trade-offs better and avoid burden shifting.

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

            A key take-out from the analysis of the various LCAs is that reusable tableware out-performs single-use tableware across all environmental impact categories, with water use being the exception because of washing. For example, in all catering contexts considered (hospital, school and hotel), reusable tableware has lower environmental impacts than the single-use options even if, in this food-service context, the co-disposal with food waste (and other tableware made of different materials) presents either a challenge or an opportunity for waste management.

            For both conventional and compostable single-use plastic tableware, the production of the tableware, including both material production and product manufacture, accounts for the highest contribution to the environmental impacts. Process energy, which is defined as energy required in all processes required along the whole value chain to produce the product, accounts for the major part of energy use. Another study underlined that the weight of the bowl and the source of electricity used in manufacturing are two key factors affecting the greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and climate impact of bowls made from renewable materials.

            In terms of GHG emissions, the majority of emissions are indded a result of the combustion of fossil fuels during the production processes. By contrast, transportation accounts for a very small portion of the energy use (less than 3%).

            For plates, the weight of the product is an important factor. Light weight single-use plates, regardless of material, consistently have a lower impact than heavy-duty single-use plates for all impact categories.

            By comparison, reusable porcelain dishes have globally 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. The case for reusable tableware is strengthened in countries where renewable energy makes up a high proportion of the grid mix, end-of-life treatment options are not well developed, and consumers are aware and responsible with regard to washing practices and the importance of reuse.

            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.

            6. What more specifically about the relative impact of biodegradable and compostable single use tableware?

              Globally, biodegradable and compostable tableware, in particular products made from starch-based biopolymer and wood-based fibre, are emerging as good single-use alternatives to plastics. A study particularly demonstrated 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.

              Meanwhile, one of the studies compared the environmental performance of biodegradable and compostable single-use tableware and showed that, as a consequence of the bio-based feedstock production, in 8 out of the 15 impact categories, these have a higher impact than petroleum-based plastic tableware.

              For both freshwater eutrophication and human toxicity (cancer and non-cancer effects, bioegradable and compostable products perform better than petrolum-based products. For paper plates, a key uncertainty to consider is assumptions on their decomposition in landfill, which can influence results significantly. Paper production is indeed a significant contributor to these specific impacts.

              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

              7. 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 demonstrated 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.

                In seeking to address plastic pollution, policy makers and other decision makers are thus faced with a complex terrain in which available data are limited and often contested, and they need to balance a number of impacts.

                8. What are the main conclusions made from the analysis of these LCAs?

                  The main conclusions of these studies are that :

                  • Reusable options perform better than single-use options across all impact categories, the washing phase being by far the largest contribution to their impact. For all types of single-use tableware, the largest contribution to their environmental impacts is the manufacturing phase, including both material production and product manufacturing ;
                  • Biodegradable and compostable tableware have lower impacts than conventional plastic options in particular starch-based biopolymer and wood-based fibre; However, bio-plastic (PLA) and cellulose-based single-use tableware products are the worst-performing alternative in some contexts;
                  • End-of life treatment also has a substantial influence on environmental impacts, especially for bio-based products

                  9. Are there already initiatives taken to control single-plastic uses?

                    Some countries and the European Union in particular have taken action against the use of single-use tableware but much more remains to be done.

                    In 2020, France became the first country to ban plastic cutlery, plates and cups. These items are among the single-use plastic products covered by the European Union’s Single-use Plastics Directive4 which prohibits member states from placing them on the market, member states having until July 2021 to enact the ban.

                    Similarly, a Resolution of the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly5 on “Addressing single-use plastic products pollution6 was to “encourages member states to take actions, as appropriate, to promote the identification and development of environmentally friendly alternatives to single-use plastic products, taking into account the full life cycle implications of those alternatives”. One of the actions is to make available existing information on the full life cycle environmental impacts of single-use plastic products compared to their alternatives.

                    4 The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union (2019) ‘Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment’, Official Journal of the European Union, 12.6.2019(L 155/1).
                    Available at:  products on the environment (The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, 2019).
                    5 UNEA4 decision in March 2019
                    6 UNEP/EA.4/R.9

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

                      The meta-analysis of LCAs made in this report is not intended to provide definitive environmental guidance on the “best” tableware choice and in so doing promote policies that prohibit or limit the use of other alternatives. Rather, it serves to highlight important aspects that policy makers should consider when evaluating environmental information (often in the form of LCA studies) to perform policy development that is context-specific and locally relevant. What is imperative is that policy makers act decisively, drawing on best-practice guidelines to reduce plastic pollution while also protecting the health and safety of their citizens.

                      A key take-out from this meta-analysis is that reusable tableware is clearly environmentally preferable to single-use tableware and that policy measures should be established to make the reusable option the most practical option for all stakeholders.

                      At the same time, it is important that, overall, policy makers also consider policy measures that minimise the impacts from washing but ensuring that reusable options still meet health and safety considerations.

                      By the way, in doing so, the evidence is that they can also potentially save money, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and with 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 too.

                      11. Are there additional elements for policy makers to conside?

                        The additional elements mentioned in the report and to be considered by policy makers include the following:

                        1. Policies must recognise that end-of-life management is an important contributor to the environmental impacts of single-use tableware. After production, waste collection and disposal of single-use tableware are key elements that may determine which material is preferred – and the question of food waste is critical. For example, food waste can either be a contaminant that prevents recycling as in the case of fossil-based plastic tableware or, if compostable tableware products are used, food waste can be co-disposed of and industrial composting becomes a viable option. Composting food waste results in lower greenhouse gas emissions (including methane) than landfilling.

                        2. Policies must be adapted to regional and country-specific differences. Parameters such as electricity mix and waste management technologies and efficiencies, as well as local recycling rates, are influential, and can differ significantly by geographic region. Priorities may also differ depending on whether countries are high, medium or low income. High income countries, for example, could prioritise decreasing plastic consumption. This through policies promoting reusable alternatives, eliminating plastic leakage through policies targeting behaviour change, and increasing recycling rates with policies targeting industry such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)7 and Green Public Procurement8. Middle- and low-income countries could prioritise expanding formal waste-collection services, possibly also co-financed through EPR schemes.

                        3. Policies must recognise and manage trade-offs and the risks of burden-shifting between environmental impacts. There is a tendency in LCA studies and by policy makers to focus on single issues, most notably climate change, owing to its relevance, priority and familiarity. Care must be taken to recognise and manage the trade-offs between other quantified and unquantified environmental impacts, such as those related to litter in the environment.

                        4. Policies should account for probable future innovative developments in production processes and related systems. More recently developed technologies, such as recycling technologies for bio-based plastics, may be at a disadvantage to other more established technologies because of their scale. Future developments in energy, transport and waste-management systems, power generation systems and recycling processes could all influence the relative environmental performance of different kinds of tableware.

                        5. Policies must be based on several sources of information for environmental impact. LCA results need to be considered together with other sources of relevant information on environmental and other relevant aspects. Health and safety are important considerations in food systems.

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