Many consumers are transitioning away from single-use plastic products and turning to reusable alternatives. Oftentimes, this change is being made with the assumption that these alternatives have fewer environmental impacts; however, reusable products are frequently made from more environmentally intensive materials and have use phase impacts. This study used LCA to examine the GWP, water consumption, and primary nonrenewable energy use associated with reusable alternatives for single-use plastic kitchenware products and determined environmental payback periods.
The environmental impacts for each reusable alternative are calculated on the functional units of 1 use, 1 year (5 uses/week), and 5 years (5 uses/week). Payback periods are calculated for each reusable alternative and defined as the number of times a consumer must reuse an alternative in order for the environmental impact per use to be equivalent to the environmental impact for the single-use product. The research explored the sensitivity of the results to different consumer washing and reuse behaviors, as well as local conditions such as overall transportation distances and the carbon intensity of different electricity grids. Product types studied included straws (4 reusable, 2 single-use), sandwich storage (2 reusable, 3 single-use), coffee cups (3 reusable, 2 single-use), and forks (1 single-use, 3 reusable).
Results and discussion
Environmental impacts associated with the reusable alternatives were highly dependent on the use phase due to dishwashing, making payback period sensitive to washing frequency and method, and for GWP, carbon intensity of the energy grid (used for water heating). For single-use products, the material/manufacturing phase was the largest contributor to overall impacts. It was found that nine of the twelve reusable alternatives were able to breakeven in all three environmental indicators. The coffee cup product type was the only product type to have one reusable alternative, the ceramic mug, and have the shortest payback period for all three impact categories. Both the bamboo straw and beeswax wrap were unable to breakeven in any scenario due to high use phase impacts from manual washing.
The research found that reusable alternatives can payback the environmental impacts of GWP, water consumption, and energy use associated with their more resource intensive materials, but it is dependent on number of uses, consumer behavior, and for GWP, carbon intensity of the energy grid. A key takeaway is that consumer behavior and use patterns influence the ultimate environmental impact of reusable kitchenware products.
Some recommendations for consumers looking to reduce the overall impact of kitchenware products include the following:
Not always assuming reusable is the best option.
Extending product lifetime.
Researching which reusable option has the lowest impact.
Following best practice washing behaviors.
Not washing products after every use.
Advocating for integration of renewables into the local energy grid.
Reducing consumption of these product types (reusable or single-use).
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The authors would like to thank Geoffrey Lewis for his frequent guidance on LCA, Greg Keoleian, for his insight and feedback, along with everyone else at the Center for Sustainable Systems for their support.
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Fetner, H., Miller, S.A. Environmental payback periods of reusable alternatives to single-use plastic kitchenware products. Int J Life Cycle Assess 26, 1521–1537 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-021-01946-6