Which type of reusable tableware is the greenest and the most practical?
In this article Isabel Mack, founder of the Party Kit Network, shares the results of her investigation into 6 types of reusable tableware commonly found in our party kits.
When supporting people to set up new party kits I often get asked which type of tableware is the greenest.
This isn’t an easy question to answer. There certainly isn’t enough transparency about how items are made, and there continues to be confusion around terms such as ‘biodegradable’ and what ‘recyclable’ actually mean.
If you’re looking to set up a new party kit and want to understand the pros and cons of the different types of tableware commonly available, this article aims to answer some of your questions.
There’s a range of different tableware types found in party kits including materials such as plastic, bamboo and crockery. For this article I’ve focused on tableware most suitable for children’s parties.
I’ve compared six types of reusable tableware. Not all tableware is made in the same way so I’ve researched the most popular brands for each.
For each type of tableware I’ve looked at:
Suitability - how safe and practical each type of tableware is for use in a party kit
Production - the source materials and how each type of tableware is made
End-of-life - what can be done with the tableware once it can no longer be safely used
Types of Tableware
There is a wide range of reusable tableware options available. Here’s an introduction to the six types most commonly found in party kits:
Reusable tableware made from virgin plastic is by far the most popular type of tableware found in party kits. It’s cheap, easy to buy and designed to be safely used by kids. ‘Virgin plastic’ refers to tableware made from brand new petroleum-based plastic.
2. Recycled Plastic
Recycled plastic tableware is more common in our party kits in Australia and New Zealand but popular US brand Re-Play is now available in the UK.
This tableware is made from petroleum-based plastics which have been used and then recycled; for example plastic milk bottles and yogurt pots.
3. Plant-based plastic (PLA)
This is the newest category of plastic tableware with popular brands launching plant-based ranges within the last couple of years. These are made from a plant-based resin created from renewable starch-based fibres extracted from crops like corn, wheat and sweet potatoes.
I looked at the Bobo & Boo plant-based tableware range.
Note: I did also look at IKEA’s PLA tableware ranges, HEROISK and TALRIKA, however these have since been removed from sale and a product recall issued.
Bamboo tableware has probably obtained a reputation for being the most ‘green’. The demand for bamboo has exploded in the last few years as a sustainable alternative to many everyday items and tableware has been no different.
Bamboo tableware is the second most common type of reusable tableware found in our party kits with Australian brand Bobo & Boo the most popular brand.
Often found in the supermarket aisles during the picnic season, Melamine has received a stylish makeover in the last few years. It tends to come in pastel colours and with a wide range of prints available.
The most common Melamine tableware found in party kits is by Danish brand RICE. This is a type of plastic made from melamine and formaldehyde rather than petroleum-based plastic.
Popular with campers (and my granny), Enamel tableware is made from powdered glass which is bonded onto heavy-gauge steel and dipped in liquid enamel. I looked at French brand Falcon.
When deciding on reusable tableware, it's important to ensure it is practical. It doesn’t matter how green something is if it’s not going to be useful.
I looked at 5 categories:
How kid-safe are the items
Can they safely be used for hot drinks
Can they be washed in a dishwasher
Can they be used to in a microwave
How affordable is it for those setting up a party kit with tableware bought new.
1. Kid Safe
Most of the party kits in the Party Kit Network are designed for use at kids parties so it is vital that the tableware included in these kits is safe for kids. All the tableware brands I looked at were free from nasties such as BPA, BPS and Phthalates.
Durability is key for equipment regularly used by kids. All types are resistant to breaks and will last a long time with care, however I have found bamboo tableware to be more brittle; it doesn’t hold up as well when dropped or put under strain.
For hygiene and safety reasons any tableware which is cracked or split should no longer be used.
2. Suitable for Hot Drinks
With the exception of Enamel and the Harfield Polycarbonate range, none of the tableware brands I looked at were suitable for hot drinks (above 70℃) and Enamel will still get hot to touch.
While you're unlikely to find many kids demanding a cup of tea at a party, it is something to consider if you want your party kit to cater for a wider range of celebrations. Instead you may want to add suitable mugs to your range of equipment to cater for hot drinks safely.
Note: It is not recommended to use Melamine tableware for acidic drinks like fruit juices.
3. Dishwasher Safe
While all the tableware I looked at is dishwasher-safe, most can only go in the top rack of the dishwasher. This isn’t normally large enough for a whole party kit. All tableware will last longer if washed by hand, although this is generally seen as less eco-friendly as hand-washing tends to use more water.
4. Microwave Safe
While the three types of Plastic tableware are all tested microwave safe, they are really only suitable for reheating food for very short periods and not for cooking food.
Personally, I no longer use any kind of plastic in a microwave. Studies have shown that when heated even BPA-free plastic tableware can release harmful chemicals. As a general rule, I advise those who hire my own party kit to not put any of the equipment in a microwave.
Bamboo, Melamine and Enamel are not microwave safe.
When it comes to financial cost nothing can compete with the IKEA KALAS range. At £1.25 for a pack of 6 plates it is by far the cheapest tableware option available.
While prices do vary by brand, generally the Recycled Plastic, Plant-based Plastics and Bamboo tableware have similar costs. Melamine tends to be more expensive unless its picnic season when supermarkets will may have options. A set of Enamel tableware is the most expensive investment.
Party Kit Weight
I have two party kits, and the Bobo & Boo Bamboo set is much heavier than the IKEA KALAS Plastic set. An IKEA Plastic plate (18cm) weighs 50g, while a Bobo & Boo 19.8cm plate is more than twice as heavy at 118g each.
So if lifting heavy boxes is a worry, I would personally discount both Bamboo and Enamel based purely on the weight.
If you want to offer cutlery, it is advisable not to supply metal cutlery with plastic tableware; the IKEA plates in particular will scratch easily.
For Bamboo, Plant-based Plastic and Recycled Plastic sets it can be difficult to find suitable adult-sized cutlery. Bobo & Boo and Re-Replay both only sell small forks and spoons designed for younger children.
When researching this article, by far the most complex part was trying to establish what each tableware is made from and the impact of the manufacturing process on the environment.
When we make things, everything has an energy and resource cost, and reusable tableware is no different. The carbon and resource footprint of reusable tableware will be higher than disposables, but the impact of production is reduced with each use.
This impact can be further reduced by sourcing preloved tableware. There’s quite a few party kits who have managed to put together enough tableware from local donations to avoid buying new.
The IKEA Plastic plates are made from Polypropylene (PP), a petroleum-based plastic. This means that oil has been extracted and refined, eventually to become what we know as plastic. Oil is a fossil fuel and not renewable - there is a finite amount of oil on our planet. Landscape and sea bed destruction together with the risk of oil spills all make oil extraction dangerous to the environment. Just as more of us are switching away from oil to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, we also need to stop making new plastics from oil.
During the manufacturing process significant toxic chemicals are released and accidents can be hazardous for workers.
Recycled plastic plates fare slightly better when considering sustainability as they reuse plastic which already exists. Re-Play tableware is made from recycled HDPE and Polypropylene plastics like milk bottles and yogurt pots. These are still petroleum-based plastics but they have been used at least once before being made into tableware. They help to keep plastic out of landfill and the environment.
Plant-based plastic (PLA) doesn’t contain any oil, instead plant-based plastics are commonly made from starchy crops like corn, wheat and sweet potatoes. While these are renewable and non-toxic there are still some considerations. Has land been diverted away from food production or natural habit destroyed to grow the crops needed for PLA production? How much water is needed to grow the crops? What pollution is there from fertilisers and pest control? How close are crops grown to where the PLA is manufactured? It is currently difficult to get the answer to these questions when considering PLA tableware options.
Bamboo is a popular renewable resource because it grows quickly, reduces soil erosion and needs little water compared to other crops. The bamboo fibres used for tableware are commonly a by-product from the bamboo industry. It is currently difficult to validate that the source bamboo has been grown sustainably - there isn’t a FSC certification like there is for wood. Some bamboo tableware also includes other natural fibres, such as bran, cornstarch and wood. All bamboo tableware includes an epoxy resin which is a type of plastic. It is this epoxy resin which has caused the concern about using reusable cups made of bamboo for hot drinks.
Melamine and formaldehyde are used to make a durable plastic which is food-safe, despite the scary-sounding ingredients. This type of plastic isn’t petroleum-based and so doesn’t use oil.
Melamine manufacturing emits chemical waste and toxic fumes contributing to air, land and water pollution.
Enamel tableware is made from powdered glass which is bonded onto heavy-gauge steel, cast iron or aluminium. The steel is pressed into shape and then dipped in liquid enamel before being fired in a kiln. Animal bone is no longer used in the production of modern enamel.
During its life a party kit will help avoid thousands of single-use items from going to waste. It’s this opportunity to reduce waste which is why the party kit concept is more sustainable than single-use disposables. However, to be truly zero waste we need to avoid throwing items which are no longer usable in the bin.
Any cracked or broken tableware is not safe or hygienic and shouldn’t be lent in a party kit. This means that once tableware is broken it needs to be repaired, repurposed, recycled or thrown away.
I looked at 3 categories:
Can broken tableware be repaired?
Can broken tableware be recycled and made into something new?
Will broken tableware safely biodegrade?
Only Enamel tableware is repairable. Chips in Enamel tableware can be repaired using a food-safe epoxy, although some manufacturers will not recommend this.
It is not possible to safely repair any of the Plastic, Bamboo or Melamine tableware.
Tableware made from Polypropylene plastic (PP), such as the IKEA plates, can be recycled via plastic recycling schemes provided by many local authorities. In the UK the Party Kit Network has partnered with Brothers Make for a fully traceable UK-based recycling scheme.
UK manufacturer Harfields accepts their Polycarbonate plastic tableware back for recycling at end-of-life.
The Re-play tableware made from recycled HDPE can be again recycled at end-of-life.
Plant-based plastic (PLA) is technically recyclable but only at dedicated facilities. These are not readily accessible and PLA will contaminate the recycling of more common petroleum-based plastics so shouldn’t be put in general plastic recycling collections. In reality, this means putting this tableware in general waste until there is better access to PLA recycling or industrial composting.
It is possible to recycle Melamine tableware (Type 7 plastic) but very few places have access to facilities to do this. The Melamine is ground down and then included as a filler in the production of new products. Unless you are lucky enough to have access to local recycling, Melamine tableware will need to go into the general waste.
It is not possible to recycle Bamboo or Enamel tableware and both types will need to go into general waste at end-of-life.
Biodegradable means that a material will break down into organic matter ideally without leaving any toxins behind. This requires bacteria, oxygen, moisture and light. Landfills don't always have the right conditions to support the breakdown of organic matter. There are currently no regulations on what can be labelled ‘biodegradable’.
Biodegradable shouldn’t be confused with compostable. None of these types of tableware are compostable at home.
No petroleum-based plastic (virgin or recycled) is biodegradable. They will eventually degrade over hundreds of years but the plastic will never truly disappear.
While technically both the Plant-based plastic and Bamboo tableware are biodegradable, they each come with issues. The Plant-based plastic tableware can first break down into microplastics which behave just as petroleum-based plastics do when released into the environment posing the same threat to wildlife as regular plastics. However, PLA tableware can be composted at an industrial facility. Bamboo contains a small amount of epoxy resin which will not biodegrade, although the majority of bamboo fibres are expected to biodegrade.
It may be possible to repurpose tableware which can no longer be safely used for food. Such as for painting, craft and plant pot stands.
Ultimately there is no perfect tableware solution. There isn’t a single type of reusable tableware which ticks all the boxes and each has some sort of environmental impact, whether in production or at end-of-life.
Any type of tableware which is reusable is better than single-use disposables because of the waste which can be avoided with each use. However embracing preloved equipment where possible will further reduce the environmental impact of your party kit.
We have to move away from disposables if we are to reduce our impact on the planet. Each time we reuse something we are avoiding the additional resources and energy used to manufacture new items as well as the carbon emissions produced in making and shipping items.
We must treasure and reuse what we have rather than simply throwing it away after a single use.