Large amounts of water are used to produce the very disposables that are supposed to be reducing the amount of water we use. It's important to think "single purchase," not "single use."
Disposables are increasingly being touted as a green alternative to washing. Cloth diapers and dishes are two things that were commonly washed and reused on a daily basis, but now a growing number of people, particularly in drought-stricken regions such as California, are turning to disposable versions because they think it uses less water. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I’ve received several emails and comments from readers who have read my stance on reusables and are left feeling confused by the conflicting messages they’re hearing from all sides about water usage.
Steve writes: “I have been using cloth diapers and love them. I was going to buy some for a friend in California for her baby shower, but she brought up a good point. They are in a severe drought. Are cloth diapers still the most environmental option in cases of extreme drought?”
Karthick writes: “Visiting a café nearby, I saw a sign to the following effect: ‘Dear customers, California is experiencing severe drought. As a contribution from our side in reducing water usage, we will use disposable plates every Wednesday.”
Patti adds: “Don’t forget that washing dishes wastes water and puts detergent chemicals into the water supply.”
While these are valid concerns, they tend to overlook the fact that large amounts of water are used to produce the very disposables that are supposed to be reducing the amount of water we use.
In a book called “Your Water Footprint,” author Stephen Leahy explains that cloth diapers, despite needing regular washing, are much greener than disposables. The water footprint of a reusable diaper is 15 liters (4 gallons), assuming it’s used 50 times. The water footprint of a single disposable diaper is 545 liters (144 gallons), and it’s estimated that people who use disposable diapers will go through about 8,000 of them for one child.
According to my calculations, the approximately 25 cloth diapers I own will have been used over 600 times each, based on an average of five diapers being used daily for three years for three children. (Yes, they’re getting pretty ragged.)
As for disposable dishes, consider that it takes 2.6 gallons of water to produce a single sheet of paper. Then there’s the added energy cost of production, packaging, and transporting to stores and homes and away to landfill, where disposable plates and cups – which can be made of plastic, Styrofoam, virgin wood fibers, plastic-coated paper, post-consumer recycled fibers, or agricultural waste products such as bagasse, and are usually non-recyclable because they are contaminated with food residue – will sit for hundreds of years, slowly decomposing and releasing methane gas.
Former TreeHugger writer Pablo Paster addressed this question in a post for Triple Pundit comparing cups made of paper, Styrofoam, ceramic, and stainless steel:
“The production of Styrofoam cups has a much lower environmental impact than the other two in terms of resource extraction and GHG emissions [but it’s often non-recyclable]. But since the Styrofoam cups are disposable, you need a new one every time you have a cup of coffee. The environmental impact then adds up until, at 46 uses, the ceramic mug becomes the environmentally responsible choice.
“After 369 uses, the stainless steel mug also becomes a better choice than Styrofoam [and] 24 paper cups are equivalent in material intensity to a stainless steel mug.
“Ultimately the ceramic mug is the best choice since it is infinitely reusable and has a lower impact than the stainless steel mug.”
It’s difficult to calculate all the factors that affect an item’s total sustainability measurement, including “the recyclability of materials, their toxicity, the biodiversity of the raw material extraction site, and the working conditions along the supply chain,” but as long as you’re efficient about washing dishes, not running the dishwasher unless full, using non-toxic detergent, and not stuffing your kitchen cupboards with far more reusable dishes than you’ll ever use, reusables continually win out over disposables.
Some advice I like is, “Think single purchase, not single use.” The less water- and other resource-intensive production that is driven by our materialistic, disposable-inclined purchasing, the better off we’ll all be.