Pros and Cons of various kinds of disposable dishes, flatware

Now that you have your organic beverages and barbecue fare all lined for your Canada Day gathering, one niggling issue needs addressing: paper, plastic or papyrus?

While the last may seem a little farfetched, a trip to your neighbourhood grocery store, let alone an eco-oriented mega destination like Whole Foods, will demonstrate that there is no shortage of disposable party paraphernalia catering to the conscientious consumer.

From paper plates made with recycled-content to a growing array of cleverly conceived alternatives, including edible tableware, finding a platter that best accommodates your palate is becoming increasingly easier.

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Now while there is something rather eco-disconcerting about the garbage created in using tossaway dinnerware, sometimes the BYOD system (bring your own dishware) or funky thrift store finds just aren’t suitable.

When they aren’t, consider the following appetizer-sized review of plates (with a nod to other utensils) before dishing up your next do.

Papered past

Like the potluck dishes that we pile on them, and endeavour to finish before they begin to warp and sag, paper plates have long been a staple for gatherings large and small, informal and elaborate.

Pros: Light, convenient and reasonably priced, these tree-based products come from a renewable resource and readily degrade under most conditions.

Cons: While paper platters now come in forest-friendly varieties, many of which also eschew the use of nasty and harsh chemicals, be aware that not all recycled-content versions are created equal.

Most of the recycled paper plates on the market today are made with post-industrial (think sawdust from logging operations), rather than the more desirable post-consumer (what we put out to the curb) paper waste.

What to look for: Avoid virgin materials, seek out products with at least 30 per cent postconsumer content and keep a big tree in mind to remind you to use them sparingly.

Plastic getaways

Not even a vacation on an isolated, deserted island will spare you contact with the pervasive and disturbingly persistent creature known as the plastic polymer. Taking many shapes and forms, some more manageable (i.e. recyclable) than others, plastic is a favourite with those looking for something a bit sturdier, and immune to the moisture malaise that compromises paper plates.

Pros: Like their paper counterparts, disposable plastic dishes and cutlery are generally light, convenient and reasonably priced. Water friendly, plastic has the added benefit of multiple uses, as it can be (hand) washed and reused several times.

Recent evolutions, in the way of compostable, vegetable-based (corn, potato, sugarcane) options, are making the species even more attractive because, unlike earlier generations, these new ones break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass when properly discarded.

Cons: Most of the species are petroleum-based, possessing unnaturally long lives that endanger both humans and the environment during all stages of their development.

While compostable bioplastics are an improvement, those such as corn plastic give rise to whole host of other issues, such as the appropriation of food resources.

What to look for: While most plastic plates are pretty pesky, if you are determined to take some home, opt first for bio-based versions, most of which can be composted (commercially or in the backyard), or at least will eventually break down in a landfill.

If a vegetable variety is not a financial option (being slightly more expensive), or even available, choose a product that can be recycled readily in your curbside blue box. Sugarcane (or bagasse) based plates can be found at a variety of health food stores.

DISPOSABLE BEAUTY

“Too pretty to throw away” is how many people describe the growing number of disposable products made from such materials as bamboo or discarded palm leaves. While often sold and recommended for single use, their visual appeal often inspires people to keep them around for as long as possible.

Pros: A mix of the best qualities of paper and plastic — sturdy, reusable, readily biodegradable or compostable and sourced from renewable resources — plates made from materials like bamboo and pressed palm leaves are attractive both environmentally and esthetically.

Cons: More expensive, sometimes significantly so, than your average disposable paper or plastic plate.

What to look for: Whenever possible, choose products that indicate they were sustainably grown (i.e. no pesticides) and harvested, and used no chemicals in their production.

For those looking to support local, consider Earthen Disposable Dinnerware.

The company was started by Victoria-based Alex Casewa, who came up with the idea as part of his sustainable-development thesis project.

You can buy Earthen’s innovative products at several Vancouver Island grocery and other stores, or at¬†earthentrading.ca¬†on the Internet. A typical price is 12 plates measuring 22 centimetres (nine inches) in diameter for $6.99,

Kim Davis is a Vancouver environmental affairs consultant.

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