Hey Mr. Green,
I'm trying to make my church's coffee hour green (ceramic mugs, metal flatware, etc.). How do I respond to folks who say, "But think of the amount of water and electricity used by the dishwasher!" Do you have any data on the relative damage done to the environment by paper plates/cups and plastic spoons vs. water, generating electricity, and detergents? –Susan, Mountain View, California
I could go theological, and ask, “What would Jesus do?” when he organized a Seder that turned out to be a momentous historical and religious event. Serve up the wine in Styrofoam cups? Slap the unleavened bread on paper plates? But since this is a science-based rather than faith-based resource, we’ll look at the data.
First, though, remember that energy and water aren’t your only issues, because throwaway products wind up in bulging landfills. Also, paper used for food and beverages can’t be easily recycled like other paper, and foam manufacture requires benzene, a toxic substance extracted from coal. Nevertheless, your fellow congregants’ concerns are legitimate, because making reusable ware and washing it does require lots of water, and energy to heat the water. Over the long haul, however, reusables can get by on less total energy than plastic or paper, and less water than paper products. Yes, dishwashing detergents have been a serious concern in places where phosphates causes algae to grow in water and snuff out aquatic creatures, but non-phosphate detergents are now available, and 16 states have already banned phosphate from dishwashing detergents. (Phosphates were banned from laundry detergents years ago.)
In terms of energy, an awful lot depends on your dishwashing machine. If you wash dishes by hand, or use an antiquated dishwashing machine, it is quite possible that reusable ware could never become as energy efficient as foam or other plastic disposables. For example, even with a modern, Energy Star-approved dishwasher you’d have to use a typical ceramic cup around 500 times for it to start requiring less total energy for manufacture and washing than would be needed to continue using throwaway foam cups; foam is less energy intensive than paper than paper, but you’d still have to use a ceramic cup at least 20 times to become more energy-efficient than paper cups. Glass vessels would have to be used at least 200 times to beat foam cups, and at least 8 times to beat paper ones. Bust one typical ceramic cup and you’ll have to use its replacement about 70 times just to catch up on the energy it took to make that cup. (These numbers are based on Martin B. Hocking’s research published in the journal Environmental Management, after being adjusted to account for more efficient dishwashers.) So, unless you’re some rowdy sect dedicated to food fights and busting tableware, reusable ware is best.
Returning to religion, I’d also urge you to consider the basic morality of reinforcing a throwaway civilization that has created an overwhelming cascade of garbage: We’re sending almost 2 pounds more per capita to the dumps than we did in 1960, having upped that ghastly load from about 2.7 pounds per person per day to an unconscionable 4.6 pounds per person per day. And it’s not only household garbage. The EPA estimates that 200 million gallons of used motor oil—about a BP Gulf spill--get poured away each year. Not really the kind of behavior churches should endorse, especially when they could be playing a key role in developing environmental ethics. (To find out more about the environmental work of various faiths, see National Religious Partnership for the Environment http://www.nrpe.org/ )
Finally, you’ve got some notable Biblical precedents for reusing instead of throwing away. Ruth, ancestor of King David, and one of the sweetest people in the entire Hebrew scripture, goes out gleaning in the fields, scrounging up food rather than letting it go to waste. And when Jesus gets done multiplying the loaves and fishes and feeding the multitude, does he just chuck the leftovers? No way. He orders his disciples to “gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost,” and they end up with five baskets of leftovers. “That nothing be lost.” Now there’s as fine an environmental slogan as I can imagine.