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For greener dinner parties, think beyond the plate

By Jade Wang | 24 Jan 2011

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QUESTION: I often host dinner parties for groups of six to 10 people, and I have always wondered: Should I purchase disposable plasticware or paperware, or is it better to use my flatware and run one or two dishwasher loads? Which uses fewer resources? Which has a less negative impact on the environment? Asked by Alison Herson, Vancouver, Wash.

ANSWER: As a fellow frequent hostess of dinner parties, I sympathize with your dilemma—I love having company over, and I love the Earth, but I don’t love doing dishes. Can I use disposables for my next casserole with a clear conscience? Or should my mismatched china make an appearance? So long as you’ve already got the flatware and you’re using an efficient dishwasher, the answer is clear: reusable dinnerware is the way to go. But there’s a lot more the (moderately) ambitious host or hostess can do to throw the greenest dinner party in town.

The spread from my housewarming dinner party with, yes, paper plates and plastic cups. I hadn't purchased enough real plates yet (ours were slowly collected from thrift stores to save money and be greener)—but after writing this article, I am all porcelain, all the way. Photo: Erin Delaney

First, let’s see how paper plates and porcelain plates stack up. Whether discarding dishes or piling them in the sink, dinner party clean up can be taxing for both the host and the planet. Using the dishwasher requires water, detergent and electricity. Using paper plates requires raw materials, manufacturing and delivery, and disposal. You’ll find the analytical details in the Nitty Gritty, but here’s the spoiler: using porcelain plates with the dishwasher wins out because of their potential for reuse.

The carbon emissions from manufacturing a paper plate are small compared to porcelain. However, paper plates need to be made each time they are used, in addition to transportation from the factory to the dinner table. Assuming you use your porcelain plates for at least a year and run the dishwasher sparingly, porcelain plates are the greener choice.

Paper plates have a greater environmental impact because with each use, their entire supply chain is recreated. Plastic or Styrofoam, not surprisingly, are worse still. And even though most end up in landfills, used paper plates can actually be composted, so if you must be disposable, go with paper.

To really make your dinner parties eco-friendly, though, there’s a lot more you can do—and several previous SAGE columns that can help guide the way:

  • When you are washing the few dishes you need, running the dishwasher instead of washing by hand saves on water and the energy needed to heat it. Consider reducing dish usage overall as well. Serving a course in its cooking dish can add a charming rustic touch to your table while reducing resource use—and perhaps bring fond memories of your college days, as well.

    Me and my roommates, Erin Delaney and Shelly Ni, hosting a Thanksgiving potluck. This time, our friends brought their own plates to address our shortage—and they helped clean up, too! Photo: Noel Crisotomo.

Making a few changes to your dinner party menu can have an even bigger positive impact:

  • Cooking seasonally and locally reduces transportation costs to get produce from distant farms to your table. Did you know that flying one pound of vegetables across the country emits more greenhouse gases than it takes to run the dishwasher?
  • Consider reducing the red meat in your meals. Raising animals for meat uses vast quantities of grain and water—with the greenhouse gas emissions from producing a pound of beef, you could run your dishwasher 10 times.
  • If your guests are like mine, you’ll need plenty of wine. Drinking locally makes environmental sense, too—and in Washington State, why wouldn’t you?—but spare a thought for how the grapes are grown, too.

Choosing porcelain is only the beginning; soon, your innovative menus will be the talk of the town, and you’ll be the green dining sage.

READ MORE: The numbers behind green hosting. Plus, is it more environmentally friendly if your guests do the dishes?

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