Sustainable products: is reusable always better than single use?

plastic fork, metal fork, sustainable products
Marco Verch via Flickr

The question seems so simple. At least for those of us who want to be eco-friendly. But once we get beneath the surface, all environmental questions become more complicated. So what are truly sustainable products for the home? 

Single-use plastic items are an environmental menace. It would seem that substituting reusable or biodegradable versions of the same product is better for the environment. Some recent research has called that thought into question. 

A study of reusable vs single-use kitchenware

Researchers at the University of Michigan compared the lifetime environmental impact of single-use kitchenware products with their reusable counterparts. They examined the energy and water needed to produce and use it all to assess global warming potential. 

The environmental impact of making a single-use product is much lower than the impact of making a reusable counterpart. And much of the environmental impact of the reusable products comes from the water and energy it takes to wash them after use.

A reusable product may have to be used, say, two hundred times before it has no more impact than the same number of single-use products. After that break-even point, the reusable one becomes the more sustainable product.

The study compared four reusable and two single-use straws, two reusable and three single-use sandwich storage options, three reusable and two single-use coffee cups, and one single use and three reusable forks. It assumed five uses per week. 

It found that bamboo drinking straws, beeswax sandwich wrap, and silicone bags never break even. At least in the case of the bamboo straws and the beeswax wrap, they must be washed by hand. That requires water, detergent, and the energy needed to heat the water.

The other products tested eventually broke even, but with some caveats. Limit consumption of the reusable products. 

A metal straw, for example, passes the test in this study, but only if you commit yourself to using the same one. If you keep one at home, one at the office, and one in the car, the break-even time will take much longer. One ceramic coffee mug easily beats a mound of disposable cups. A whole collection of them does not. 

Accumulating too much stuff is not eco-friendly. Not even if you’re accumulating too many sustainable products. 

The trouble with this study and others like it

I have earlier written about similar studies comparing single-use and reusable shopping bags. Estimates of how many times it’s necessary to reuse a cloth bag to break even vary widely. Some appear to be heavily influenced by the plastics industry.

Studies like these have one fatal flaw: They consider only the global warming potential of manufacturing and using the products. They do not consider the environmental impact of disposing of all that single-use plastic and so dismiss sustainable products. 

Environmental sustainability requires looking at more than simply global warming potential. It also requires that products be made from renewable resources and that they do no direct harm to the environment. 

Single-use plastic products fail on both counts. 

The world has depleted all the petroleum that was easy to get to. Now, we have to drill on the ocean floor. Drilling inevitably leaks oil into the water even without such spectacular mishaps as the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Or, we have to resort to fracking to extract oil from otherwise depleted fields. And that, too, has potential for great environmental harm.

Proper disposal of single-use plastic products takes up valuable landfill space for hundreds of years. And chemicals from the plastic can get into the leachate. Improper disposal of them endangers wildlife. Plastic bags in streams can clog them and increase flooding risk. 

Single-use plastic products are not sustainable products. Period. 

What makes a product sustainable?

metal knives, forks. sustainable products

Sustainability has three pillars: environmental, economic, and social. Determining which products are sustainable, then, is a lot more complicated than considering the energy and water needed to make and use them. 

Still, we shouldn’t assume every reusable product is the most sustainable choice. Another reusable option may be more sustainable. 

So are reusable products always more sustainable than single-use products? Once we take issues of waste into account, yes, they are. But it’s not as simple a question as it appears at first. 

The way we use sustainable products matters, too. If you like beeswax wrap, for example, maybe you can get away with a quick rinse instead of a sudsy wash. Or wash it only after you have accumulated enough other things that you have to wash by hand. 

Shop related products:

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food / Dana Gunders

Live Green: 52 Steps for a More Sustainable Life / Jen Chillingsworth

Spanish 100% Recycled Glass Medium Incised Salsa Bowl, Set of 2

Lekoch Bamboo Dinnerware Set,Eco-friendly
Bamboo Fiber Dinnerware 10-Piece,Tableware Set
for Party, BBQ, Gift, Wedding, Camping, Valentine (Dinner & Salad Plate Cup Large & Small Bowl)

The Green Polly Organic Hemp Cloth Coffee Filter Cone No. 4, 3-Pack, Reusable | Zero-Waste and Eco-Friendly | All-natural Hemp Cotton Cloth Coffee

100% Recycled Glass Textured Large Oval Bowl

The truth about reusable kitchen essentials / Angely Mercado, Popular Science. July 16, 2021
What makes a product sustainable? / Jenna Cyprus, Earth911. July 7, 2020

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