With the end of summer celebrations on the way and school activities gearing up, now is the time to rethink your disposable dinnerware products. Not just for summer and picnics, a fall full of back to school activities, kids’ parties, and holiday events often require moms to purchase or contribute items to serve food and drinks. My own children attend an eco-friendly school and we are often asked to provide reusable items for these occasions.
Dangerous Disposable Dinnerware: The Uninvited Toxic Guest at Your Party
The trouble is that many readily available brands of disposable dinnerware are toxic, often containing chemicals that can be harmful to your children, and especially to children who are extra sensitive to certain toxins. Chemicals found on or used in the making of disposable paper plates and cups, plastic utensils, and other service-ware have been linked to everything from liver damage to cancer. Below is a list of unsafe ingredients and chemicals that can be found in your favorite brands of disposable cups, plates, straws and cutlery.
Naturally, we can’t write an article about dangerous disposable dinnerware without talking about the damage to the environment. In 2011, the Ocean Conservancy recorded the number of straws their volunteers cleaned up during the International Coastal Cleanup. They found “enough disposable straws were found to pop one into you beverage every day for the next 1,250 years.” How toxic are these products for the environment? Let’s take a look at the problems that disposable dinnerware poses for both your family and the environment.
Also known as Styrofoam, this product is used in the production of “hot” disposable dinnerware: cups and plastic utensils. The main chemical in it is styrene, which is classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA. It has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers. Additionally, chemicals can leach out into your food from these products, especially when heated. In 1986, the EPA listed polystyrene as the “5th largest creator of hazardous waste,” although they do not list is it as unsafe in cups and utensils. The process to make it also pollutes the air and, because it can break up into pieces, it is harmful to animals that might digest it. Just this July, New York City banned Styrofoam and Dunkin’ Donuts announced it would be phasing out Styrofoam cups. It’s time to remove these items from your kitchen as well.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Found on paper plates, VOCs have been determined by the EPA to possibly contribute to both long- and short-term health problems, including headaches, loss of coordination, and damage to your liver, kidney, and central nervous system. VOCs can also be harmful to lungs, blood flow, and the senses. Do we really want our families eating off plates made with this chemical?
Chlorine & Dioxins
Even more common in the bleaching of paper products is chlorine. While we tend to think of this chemical as a way to make pools “safe”, its safety is debatable. What scientists do know is that when chlorine is processed, dioxins and other dangerous chemicals are left behind which often end up in our water supply. Dioxins can cause reproductive problems and developmental issues, damage the immune system, are an endocrine disruptor and a known carcinogen as well as being linked to birth defects and stillbirths in laboratory mice studies. Those are the dangers of long-term exposure, but even short-term exposure can cause skin legions and impact liver function. This organic pollutant also accumulates in the body and dumps poison into our landfills.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Today, plastic cups and plates may still contain BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor causing reproductive harm, early puberty and low sperm count – even with low-level exposure. Not only that, over 130 studies have linked it to breast cancer! It has also been linked to depression in teens as well as obesity. This is definitely a chemical we want our children to avoid by using non non-toxic dinnerware.
Other Food Grade Plastics
While the label “BPA Free” may make you more confident about buying products, a 2011 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives discovered that other “safer” plastics, which are often found in straws and paper cups and include polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate, can leak estrogen-like compounds into food and drinks. In addition, the plastic lining in paper cups is not recyclable so most paper cups end up in landfills.
Sometimes found in paper plates and cups, phthalates are linked to breast cancer and are another item on the list of endocrine disruptors. They have been also linked to poor development of reproductive organs in male mice that were exposed prenatally. This toxin is found in so many other products, it makes sense to avoid it whenever possible.
Paper plates and cups are often treated with petroleum-based coatings, so that they do not fall apart when hold food or liquid. These coatings are not biodegradable and are often misplaced in a compost pile, where they contaminate the compost. Since we know that some petroleum-based chemicals are unsafe, depending on the refinement process, I’d rather my family avoid these coatings altogether.
Safer Alternatives to Toxic Disposable Dinnerware Products
Is there a way to source these items to be both safe for your family and for the environment? There are lots of options for shoppers to buy dinnerware that, for the most part, you won’t find in your local grocery shop. Most mainstream brands are rife with some combination of the toxic chemicals I’ve listed here. However, the extra time and investment in cleaner products will help keep you and your family safe, and protect the environment.
Better Product Choices
Chinet® Classic White Fiber Plates: I was shocked to find out that Chinet is not one of the bad guys! They do not use dioxin or other coatings and their plates are compostable. They are made from 100% pre-consumer recycled, FDA-approved paper and are BPA- and allergen-free.
Aardvark Paper Straws: Eco-friendly, compostable, biodegradable, chlorine-free. They are coated with FDA food grade materials, which can mean one of the unsafe coatings we listed above.
IKEA SÖTVATTEN Drinking Straws: Contains no BPA. However, they do contain polypropylene. They are very affordable, though, so this may be a better option for when you are hosting large parties.
Natural Paper Plates: These plates and products are 100% biodegradable and compostable, as well as microwave and oven safe. They also claim to be chemical-free, although I could not tell if they use FDA food grade materials.
Eco-Products®: This shop carries lots of options from plates made from sugarcane (compostable, reclaimed and renewable), to utensils made from corn plastics (PLA) to hot and cold cups. These solutions are better than traditional plastic products, but PLA is currently a source of controversy, since it can be energy-intensive to create and there can be problems sorting it. These types of plastics also often end up in recycling where they contaminate conventional recycling. That said, this store has a large selection of options to replace traditional disposable ware.
Best Recommendations for Eco-Friendly, Non Toxic Dinnerware
JoJoGreens Disposable Wooden Cutlery: 100% biodegradable and compostable, these untreated birch utensils are meant for single use only.
EarthEasy Biodegradable Bamboo Plates: Chemical and pesticide-free, no bleaches or day and made of 100% certified organic bamboo, these disposable please are compostable. Plus, they are made from sustainable bamboo and are USDA Biobased Certified.
Repurpose® Products: Re-purpose provides compostable, BPA free paper products, including hot and cold cups, lids, plates, bowls, and utensils. Their products are 100% made from plants and not petroleum, so no chlorine either. They do use soy-based inks so be aware if you have soy sensitivities.
VerTerra: Dinnerware made from fallen leaves? We like the sound of that. VerTerra offers a fairly affordable solution for single use, biodegradable dinnerware using only leaves and water in the process. They also make PLA utensils (see note above on the problems with PLA).
These following straw products are not practical for large parties, but will serve you well for every day family use or as a substitute for straws at your local restaurant, to help reduce waste.
Glass Dharma Straws: Because the top items collected during beach clean ups are straws, Glass Dharma created a solution with their glass drinking straws. Naturally, they are reusable, harmless to the environment and come with a lifetime guarantee against breakage. And of course, it’s easy to see when they are clean.
Eco at Heart Stainless Steel Straws: If glass worries you, this alternative is a good answer to disposable dinnerware or glass straws. BPA free, guaranteed not to bend, break or rust, and dishwasher safe, these straws will not leave a metallic taste in your drink.
Your family does not have to eat from toxic disposable dinnerware, be it chemical coated plates or plastic-laden utensils, even during big events like your child’s next birthday party, back to school celebrations or holiday events. These products can help you keep your family and friends safe and will go a long way towards protecting our planet!
Marcus & Marcus Collapsible Sandwich Wedge: Say goodbye to wasteful zip top bags, and say hello to a fun and convenient reusable container option. The food-grade silicone container is lightweight and collapsible for easy traveling and storage.