During our previous cycle of LCA+U, ESW member Tatiana Freiin von Rheinbaben at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) used what she learned in our short course and her access to life cycle assessment (LCA) tool Sustainable Minds to analyze plastic vs. porcelain plates, bowls, cups, and utensils at different dining halls on campus. She used her findings to convince UCSD staff to switch to reusable versions at the newest dining hall – keep reading to learn how she did it!
Tatiana and her team member Ayat noticed that the newly opened dining hall 64 Degrees only used disposable plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils, while older dining halls had porcelain plates and bowls and reusable cups. When they asked the UCSD sustainability manager about this, she explained that, due to the drought in California, UCSD wanted to save water by using recyclable plastic ware. Tatiana and Ayat decided to investigate how the on-campus water savings weighed against the environmental cost of recycling.
Campus dining options: reusable porcelain vs. recyclable plastic
First, Tatiana and Ayat inspected the trashcans at 64 Degrees, noting that students weren’t doing a great job of separating trash and recyclables – plastic ware often ended up in the landfill trash can, and the food waste and recyclable cans often had trash in them. This led to most of the waste being sent to a landfill, where it could not be reused, recycled, or even decomposed. However, Tatiana assumed that some of the plastic ware was being picked up by the recycling company EDCO, and she called them to ask about the recycling process. An employee explained that the recycling process uses a lot of water – they have to wash the plastic before converting it to pellets, and other companies may use water in their process to mold the pellets. Additionally, EDCO has to pick up the recyclables and ship the pellets to other companies, which increases CO2 emissions.
Tatiana compared 64 Degrees to another dining call at UCSD called Pines that uses porcelain plates. These plates are manufactured in China, leading to high CO2 emissions from shipping. She also found out what dishwasher Pines uses and approximated how many cycles are run each day, calculating the total amount of water used per day at Pines to clean the dishes. Finally, Tatiana found and compared the approximate cost and weight of the plastic plates to the porcelain plates to compare transportation emissions and total costs. She input all this data into Sustainable Minds. She concluded that for manufacturing and transportation, the reusable plates have a lower carbon footprint and are more cost effective than the recyclable plastic plates.
After Tatiana presented her findings to the UCSD sustainability manager, this information was passed along to Housing, Dining, and Hospitality managers at UCSD. At the same time, other campus sustainability organizations pressured the college to introduce reusable plates at 64 Degrees. USCD decided to introduce reusable plates during summer 2015, and Tatiana plans to follow up this semester to make sure this becomes standard practice for the rest of the school year.
Photos courtesy of University of California, San Diego.