Why reusable products aren’t always greener

Bamboo straws, reusable coffee mugs, beeswax cloths for baking packing, … plenty of options for the conscious consumer who wants to use less plastic. Nice stuff, but how ecological are the reusable alternatives really? Much depends on how it is used, said Hannah Fettner, a researcher at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

Fetner compared the environmental impact of four types of household items, straws, coffee mugs, forks and foil. What did you turn? The reusable version is not necessarily the most environmentally conscious. “Reusable products often require more energy and raw materials in production than single-use products, and washing dishes also costs energy,” says Wittner. We have calculated how many times you have to use a reusable substitute before the effect is equal to the disposable effect. For example, how often should you use a reusable pipette before the effect will be the same if you are to use a disposable pipette each time.

That payback period—the tipping point at which reusable materials become more sustainable than disposables—is surprisingly late for some products. This is partly because more energy and materials go into production, but primarily because cleaning them requires a lot of energy and water, Wittner says. Beeswax wipes never reach that tipping point. They have a lot of space, and washing them requires more energy than using disposable plastic foil each time.

Fetner immediately comments on the results. Energy and water consumption largely determines the payback period, and our calculation is based on a very intensive dishwashing method. In practice, many people will use less water and energy. For example, if you rinse a beeswax cloth or a reusable absorbent with some cold water, you will get a completely different result. The fact that the green electricity is coming from the socket or not makes a big difference in calculating your CO2 footprint.

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Thus, the payback period of reusable kitchen utensils is largely related to the frequency and method of washing dishes. Wittner explains that at least in terms of energy. Our research focuses on energy consumption and CO2 emissions in kitchen appliances. Plastic pollution is a big problem of course, but that’s not part of the exercise we did.

Fetner realizes that the conclusions of her research can be confusing for consumers looking for ecological alternatives. However, the general message is clear. Use your reusable products for as long as possible, and try to reduce the impact of washing dishes. You can also rinse the bag from which you drank the tea, this is enough. It’s also helpful to think about what you’re buying. Reusable products are fashionable, but it is better to use what you already have than to buy new things. You may also be wondering whether or not some products are necessary or reusable. Popsicles, for example, you can actually do without them.

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