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).
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).
Accorsi R, Cascini A, Cholette S, Manzini R, Mora C (2014) Economic and environmental assessment of reusable plastic containers: a food catering supply chain case study. Int J Prod Econ 152:88–101
Allocation Cut-off by Classification. Cut-Off system model. www.ecoinvent.org/database/system-models-in-ecoinvent-3/cut-off-system-model/allocation-cut-off-by-classification.html
Alton CC, Underwood PB (2003) Let us make impact assessment more accessible. Environ Impact Asses 23(2):141–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0195-9255(02)00093-8
Andrady AL (2011) Microplastics in the marine environment. Mar Pollute Bull 62(8):1596–1605. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.05.030
Bisinella V, Albizzati PF, Astrup TF, Damgaard A (2018) Life cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags. Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Copenhagen
Blanca-Alcubilla G, Bala A, de Castro N, Colomé R, Fullana-i-Palmer P (2020) Is the reusable tableware the best option? Analysis of the aviation catering sector with a life cycle approach. Sci Total Environ 708:135121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135121
Boesen S, Bey N, Niero M (2019) Environmental sustainability of liquid food packaging: is there a gap between Danish consumers’ perception and learnings from life cycle assessment? J Clean Prod 210:1193–1206. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.11.055
Bole R (2006) Life cycle optimization of residential clothes washer replacements (doctoral dissertation). http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/36308
Bortolini M, Galizia FG, Mora C, Botti L, Rosano M (2018) Bi-objective design of fresh food supply chain networks with reusable and disposable packaging containers. J Clean Prod 184:375–388
Breiting S, Mogensen F (1999) Action competence and environmental education. Camb J Educ 29(3):349–353. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764990290305
Brown N (2019) 20 cheap products to replace a whole bunch of disposable plastic. BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed. www.buzzfeed.com/nataliebrown/cheap-use-less-disposable-single-use-plastic
Cherif H, Belhadj J (2018) Environmental life cycle analysis of water desalination processes. In Sustainable desalination handbook (pp. 527–559). Butterworth-Heinemann. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-809240-8.00015-0
Chitaka TY, Russo V, von Blottnitz H (2020) In pursuit of environmentally friendly straws: a comparative life cycle assessment of five straw material options in South Africa. Int J Life Cycle Ass 25(9):1818–1832. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01786-w
Cottafava D, Costamagna M, Baricco M, Corazza L, Miceli D, Riccardo LE (2020) Assessment of the environmental break-even point for deposit return systems through an LCA analysis of single-use and reusable cups. Sustainable Production and Consumption 27:228–241
De Kleine R (2009) Life cycle optimization of residential air conditioner replacement (doctoral dissertation). http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/64483
Edwards DC (Environmental A. (1998) Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006. J Photoc Photobio B (Vol. 46). https://doi.org/10.1016/S1011-1344(98)00196-1
Englishman KO (2020) 10 plastic-free kitchen essentials to help you go zero waste on a budget. The Good Trade, The Good Trade. www.thegoodtrade.com/features/plastic-free-kitchen-essentials-on-a-budget
EPA (2019) Advancing sustainable materials management: facts and figures report. United States Environmental Protection Agency, (November). Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-Figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/advancing-sustainable-materials-management%0Ahttps://www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-Figureures-report
Escamilla EZ, Habert G (2014) Environmental impacts of bamboo-based construction materials representing global production diversity. J Clean Prod 69:117–127
European Commission (2018) A European strategy for plastics in a circular economy. COM(2018) 28 Final, SWD(2018)(1), 1–18. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy.pdf
Franklin Associates (2018) Life cycle impacts of plastic packaging compared to substitutes in the United States and Canada: theoretical substitution analysis. https://www.plasticpackagingfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Life-Cycle-Impacts-of-Plastic-Packaging-Compared-to-Substitutes-in-the-United-States-and-Canada.pdf
Franklin Associates (2011) Life cycle inventory of foam polystyrene, paper-based, and PLA food service products. Retrieved from https://www.plasticfoodservicefacts.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Peer_Reviewed_Foodservice_LCA_Study-2011.pdf
Gallego-Schmid A, Mendoza JMF, Azapagic A (2019) Environmental impacts of takeaway food containers. J Clean Prod 211:417–427
Garrido N, Del Castillo MDA (2007) Environmental evaluation of single-use and reusable cups. Int J Life Cycle Ass 12(4):252–256. https://doi.org/10.1065/lca2007.05.334
Godfrey L (2019) Waste plastic, the challenge facing developing countries—ban it, change it, collect it? Recycl 4(1):3. https://doi.org/10.3390/recycling4010003
Greene J (2011) Life cycle assessment of reusable and single-use plastic bags in California. California State University. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph_Greene2/publication/268297813_Life_Cycle_Assessment_of_Reusable_and_Single-use_Plastic_Bags_in_California/links/556cca2408aeccd7773be900/Life-Cycle-Assessment-of-Reusable-and-Single-use-Plastic-Bags-in-California.pdf
Herberz T, Barlow C, Finkbeiner M (2020) Sustainability assessment of a single-use plastics ban Sustainability 12, no. 9: 3746
Horie YA (2004) Life cycle optimization of household refrigerator-freezer replacement. Center for Sustainable Systems
Huijbregts MAJ, Steinmann ZJN, Elshout PMF et al (2017) ReCiPe2016: a harmonised life cycle impact assessment method at midpoint and endpoint level. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22:138–147. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1246-y
Insights Future Market (2019) Straw market is estimated to expand at a CAGR of nearly 6% during 2019 to 2029 - future market insights. PR newswire: news distribution, targeting and monitoring. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/straw-market-is-estimated-to-expand-at-a-cagr-of-nearly-6-during-2019-to-2029--future-market-insights-300854913.html
International Organization for Standardization (2006) Environmental management — life cycle assessment — principles and framework (ISO/DIS Standard No. 14040). Retrieved from https://www.iso.org/standard/37456.html
International Organization for Standardization (2006) Environmental management — life cycle assessment — requirements and guidelines (ISO/DIS Standard No. 14044). Retrieved from https://www.iso.org/standard/38498.html
Jensen BB, Schnack K (1997) The action competence approach in environmental education. Environ Educ Res 3(2):163–178. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350462970030205
Jolliet O, Margni M, Charles R, Humbert S, Payet J, Rebitzer G, Rosenbaum R (2003) IMPACT 2002+: a new life cycle impact assessment methodology. Int J Life Cycle Assess 8(6):324–330
Jung LW, Al-Shehhi MR, Saffarini R, Warshay B, Arafat HA (2011) Paper or plastic? Clearing misconceptions on environmental impacts of coffee cups using life cycle assessment (LCA). on Water, Energy and Environment 563
Keoleian GA, Spitzley DV (1999) Guidance for improving life-cycle design and management of milk packaging. J Ind Ecol 3(1):111–126
Kimmel ScD, Robert M (2014) Life cycle assessment of grocery bags in common use in the United States. Environ Stud 6 https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cudp_environment/6
Kitts K, and Maria C (2020) 13 Zero-Waste Kitchen Buys Under $20. HGTV www.hgtv.com/lifestyle/clean-and-organize/reusable-home-products
Leighton M (2019) 24 Cheap and easy replacements for plastic in your home and kitchen. Business Insider, Business Insider www.businessinsider.com/household-plastic-alternatives-eco-friendly-2018-8#washable-mesh-produce-bags-1
Ligthart TN, Ansems AMM (2007) Single-use cups or reusable (coffee) drinking systems: an environmental comparison. TNO, Apeldoorn
Madival S, Auras R, Singh SP, Narayan R (2009) Assessment of the environmental profile of PLA, PET and PS clamshell containers using LCA methodology. J Clean Prod 17(13):1183–1194
Market Insights Reports (2019) Green packaging market - growth, trends, and forecasts (2019 - 2024). Retrieved from https://www.marketinsightsreports.com/reports/04021169060/green-packaging-market-growth-trends-and-forecasts-2019-2024
Milà‐i‐Canals L, Lewis Y, Notten P, Virdin J, Chiaroni-Clarke R, Gerrard J, Pye T (2020) Addressing single-use plastic products pollution using a life cycle approach. Life Cycle Initiative. https://www.lifecycleinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Webinar-SUPP-Series-A-Webinar-1-6-October.pdf
Miller SA (2020) Five misperceptions surrounding the environmental impacts of single-use plastic. Environ Sci Technol. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c05295
Openbare Afvalstoffenmaatschappij voor het Vlaamse Gewest (2006) Comparative LCA of 4 types of drinking cups used at events. Retrieved from https://www.natureworksllc.com/~/media/Files/NatureWorks/What-is-Ingeo/Why-it-Matters/LCA/OVAM_Cup_ComparativeLCA_FullReport_0206_pdf.pdf
Owens JW (2001) Water resources in life-cycle impact assessment: considerations in choosing category indicators. J Ind Ecol 5(2):37–54
Pigné Y, Gutiérrez TN, Gibon T et al (2020) A tool to operationalize dynamic LCA, including time differentiation on the complete background database. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25:267–279. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01696-6
Porras GY, Keoleian GA, Lewis GM, Seeba N (2020) A guide to household manual and machine dishwashing through a life cycle perspective. Environ Res Commun 2(2):021004. https://doi.org/10.1088/2515-7620/ab716b
Postacchini L, Bevilacqua M, Paciarotti C, Mazzuto G (2016) LCA methodology applied to the realisation of a domestic plate: confrontation among the use of three different raw materials. Int J Prod Qual Manag 18:325–346
Razza F, Fieschi M, Degli Innocenti F, Bastioli C (2009) Compostable cutlery and waste management: an LCA approach. Waste Manage 29(4):1424–1433
Ro L (2020) The best products for a sustainable kitchen, according to experts. The Strategist, The Strategist, nymag.com/strategist/article/best-eco-friendly-sustainable-kitchen-items-reusable.html
Robelia BA, Greenhow C, Burton L (2011) Environmental learning in online social networks: adopting environmentally responsible behaviors. Environ Educ Res 17(4):553–575. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2011.565118
Saling P, Gyuzeleva L, Wittstock K, Wessolowski V, Griesshammer R (2020) Life cycle impact assessment of microplastics as one component of marine plastic debris. Int J Life Cycle Ass 25(10):2008–2026
Saouter E, Andreasent I (2006) Costs and benefits of communicating product safety information to the public via the internet. Itegr Environ Asses 2(2):191–195. https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.5630020212
Schnurr RE, Alboiu V, Chaudhary M, Corbett RA, Quanz ME, Sankar K, Walker TR (2018) Reducing marine pollution from single-use plastics (SUPs): a review. Mar Pollut Bull 137:157–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.10.001
Spitzley DV, Grande DE, Keoleian GA, Kim HC (2005) Life cycle optimization of ownership costs and emissions reduction in US vehicle retirement decisions. Transport Res D-Tr E 10(2):161–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trd.2004.12.003
Steenis ND, van Herpen E, van der Lans IA, Ligthart TN, van Trijp HC (2017) Consumer response to packaging design: the role of packaging materials and graphics in sustainability perceptions and product evaluations. J Clean Prod 162:286–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.06.036
Takou V, Boldrin A, Astrup TF, Damgaard A (2019) LCA of single use plastic products in Denmark
UNEP (2018) Single-use plastic: a roadmap for sustainability. United Nation Environment Programme
UNEP (2020) Single-use plastic bags and their alternatives. Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments 76
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) & Bureau of Transportation Statistics (2017) Freight Facts and Figures
van der Harst E, Potting J (2013) A critical comparison of ten disposable cup LCAs. Environ Impact Asses 43:86–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eiar.2013.06.006
Vince J, Hardesty BD (2017) Plastic pollution challenges in marine and coastal environments: from local to global governance. Restor Ecol 25(1):123–128
Vivian S, Haslam K, Soldner M, Sangster M (2011). Assessment of European energy and carbon profiles of manual and automatic dishwashing. Int J Consum Stud, 35(2), 187–193
Wells K (2019) How to break your single-use plastics habit. The New York Times, The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/smarter-living/wirecutter/stop-using-single-use-plastics.html
Woods L, Bakshi BR (2014) Reusable vs. disposable cups revisited: guidance in life cycle comparisons addressing scenario, model, and parameter uncertainties for the US consumer. Int J Life Cycle Ass, 19(4), 931–940. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-013-0697-7
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.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Communicated by: Enrico Benetto
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
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