Reusable vs. Disposable: an Environmentalist’s Dilemma

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I’m down with the “reuse” part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.

When I was 23, I bought myself a fake Christmas tree. I think real trees look a lot nicer, but though there’s nothing quite like that real pine-y smell that fills the living room over the Christmas season, I opted for a fake version that I could store in the cellar during the other 11 months of the year. Partly, I made this decision because real trees are pretty expensive and for around the same price, I could get a “tree” that I could use over and over again. But, a larger part was because I thought it was a more environmental choice. I was wrong.

Making choices is a big part of living a more sustainable lifestyle. Sometimes, it can feel like an uphill battle, because it feels like you’re surrounded with things that involve pollution, exploitation, and long-haul transportation. It feels like no matter what you choose, you’re contributing to the problem. Some people get overwhelmed and turn a blind eye, whereas others struggle through it. Personally, I feel that a middle road is the best approach for me. Obviously, I can’t avoid harming the planet 100 percent of the time, but I can cut back my impact. This is a learning curve and I’m always learning about new ways to lead a greener lifestyle.

One of the biggest things I’ve done is try to reduce my consumption and the subsequent waste of that consumption. To avoid throwing things out or buying new things, I often use reusable products. Still, “reusable” doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable, because some products involve far more energy to produce than they’re worth. Over an entire life cycle, they still involve more resources than using disposable products over that period of time. If you’re struggling with the reusable vs. disposable issue, here’s a handy guide.

Cups, Mugs, and Glasses

It takes fewer than 40 uses for a reusable cup of any material to break even with disposable paper cups, even when you throw washing the reusable cups into the mix. Ceramic mugs take the longest to break even at 39 uses. Plastic travel mugs take only 17 uses to break even. That means that if you go to Starbucks twice a week, it only takes a couple of months to make your reusable travel mug more responsible. Reusable cups and mugs take longer to break even when you compare them to Styrofoam cups, but considering the fact that Styrofoam takes forever to break down, I think the overall impact of reusable cups is still lower, especially if you use them for years. Most coffee-to-go comes in paper cups, so get yourself a travel mug or two and hand it to the barista when you get coffee on the go.

Water Bottles

I think most people are pretty familiar with the fact that reusable water bottles are better than disposable ones, but I’ll still say it: reusable bottles are better. Plastic takes a lot of energy to produce, so throwing it out after a single use is not green. I know some people are thinking “but I recycle my water bottles” or “but I reuse my water bottles” but neither of those are great options. Recycling is usually better tha throwing things away, but it still takes energy. In comparison, washing a reusable bottle doesn’t have much of an impact. If you reuse your bottles, you shouldn’t. They are not designed to withstand several uses and break down faster than bottles designed to be reusable. This can cause bacteria to grow in the little cracks that form in the plastic.

Grocery Bags

Recently, California became the first state to ban plastic bags. A lot of people gave them a big pat on the back, but others were a bit more critical. Some reusable bags have to be used a lot to break even with single-use plastic bags. Cotton is the least sustainable reusable choice, as it requires a lot of water and energy to produce. You have to use a cotton bag 131 times before it breaks even with a plastic bag and more than that if the plastic bag is reused a couple of times or used as a garbage bin liner. Other materials only require a few uses to break even, so they’re a much better alternative to disposable plastic bags. Overall, reusable bags are still better, but you should make sure that you reuse them enough to make it worth your while and you should only use cotton bags if you plan on keeping them for a few years. Personally, I have had most of my reusable bags for years and I use them a lot, but I also seem to acquire reusable grocery bags. They just appear out of thin air and sometimes I don’t know what to do with them. It’s definitely something to think about.

Christmas Trees

A couple of years ago, I learned to my dismay that real trees are almost always more sustainable than fake ones. First of all, trees absorb carbon, so tree farms are fairly neutral in terms of carbon emissions. Because trees grow in a good chunk of the Western Hemisphere, they’re also usually growing in similar conditions to their natural habitat. That means that they don’t require all that much energy to produce in the first place. Second of all, most trees come from close to home, so they don’t travel very far to get to your house. Finally, most fake trees are made of plastic, which has a pretty high carbon footprint. It can take over 20 years to make the environmental impact of a fake tree as low as that of using real trees for the same amount of time.
If the trees in your area have to be shipped in from somewhere far away, then a fake tree can be a better bet if you use it for many years in a row; otherwise, opt for a real tree. If you do have a perfectly good fake tree and want to switch to using real ones, find it a new home instead of tossing it.

Napkins

Reusable cloth napkins may seem like a better choice than disposable ones, but the issue is actually kind of complicated. Cotton is not a “green” fabric and as many cloth napkins are made of the stuff, they can have quite the impact. Reusable napkins also tend to get dirty quite quickly, which means that you have to wash them a lot. Still, paper napkins also require a fair bit of resources to produce and transport and create a lot of waste. In restaurants, paper napkins are usually the better choice, because reusable napkins take too much wear and tear and usually end up damaged before they break even, and napkins must be washed after every single use. However, you can tip the scales in your own home to make reusable options more sustainable. Wash napkins in cold water, hang them to dry, and don’t wash them unless they’re actually dirty. You can make them even greener by choosing linen or polyester fabrics.

How Can You Make Reusables Even Greener?

As you can see above, reusable usually comes out the winner, although there are a few exceptions. Because reusable items get greener with each use, there are a few things you can do to help reduce your footprint.

Buy Second Hand

You can find most of these and other reusable products in thrift stores and garage sales. Cotton grocery bags and napkins are a lot “greener” when you stretch them out into a longer life cycle. If you really must get a fake Christmas tree because of your budget or because your apartment doesn’t allow real trees, look around for a used one. I got my first Christmas tree for free at a yard sale. I originally took it as a joke because the house I was renting had a weird window looking into the storage room (which used to be a carport) and I wanted to decorate it as a Christmas scene as a prank on my roommates, but I ended up using that tree for 3 years.

Donate

If you’re bored of a perfectly good reusable item, donate it or give it away instead of throwing it away! That way, you continue its life cycle.

Get Crafty

If you sew, use fabric remnants to make things like reusable placemats, napkins, coffee sleeves, and grocery bags. I’ve made some pretty nifty things over the years using fabric left over from clothing projects.

Upcycle

Repurpose old or broken things into other things. You can turn old tees into carrier bags, jeans into placemats and pot holders, dress shirts into napkins, and so on.

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