Reusable Dishes or Disposable?

Going camping?  Should you take paper plates and cups and plastic silverware, or should buy special camping dishes and silverware?  Which is more green?  What is the right thing to do?  Like most things that are “green” the answer is, it depends.  Much of this discussion is about camping, however, many of these reasons hold true in other situations.

Embodied Energy & Carbon Footprint

The terms Embodied Energy and Carbon Footprint comes up a lot when people want to argue whether using durable goods is greener that disposable ones.  Each kind of plate, bowl or cup requires a different amount of energy and materials to make.  The energy that goes into the manufacturing and distribution of an item is called its embodied energy.  As a general rule of thumb, metal and plastic require more embodied energy than paper, but deciding which is greener is challenging because it depends on exactly where the raw materials came from and how they are put together.  Some major factors in the discussion include whether the contents come from recycled materials or not, whether the energy used by the company was “green”, such as solar or wind, versus fossil fuels including natural gas or coal.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because something is durable it has more embodied energy.

5+3 camping place settings drying after going through the dishwasher at home after camping

5+3 camping place settings drying after going through the
dishwasher at home after camping

Also very important in the discussion of which is greener is how it is used.  For example, if we consider a paper plate which has 20 times less embodied energy than an equivalent reusable plate and we are only going to use the plate 5 times, then the disposable plate would be the greener choice.  However, if we were to use that reusable plate 50 times, then the reusable plate would have a lower embodied energy than 50 disposable plates.  For our family of six, we would have needed at least 50 paper plates and bowls  to replace the seven plastic plates and bowls we took with us for just one weekend.  Making and distributing stuff is only part of the picture, how an item is used has to be considered.

Plates do not consume energy while in use, but if you are going to reuse them you had better wash them, which takes water and energy to heat the water.  The combination of the embodied energy and the usage energy is often referred to as the carbon footprint. Let’s take a look at how much water we used for washing dishes.

Water for Dish Washing

When you are washing dishes while camping, do you fill containers with water and wash lots of dishes, or do you stand at a sink and use lots of running water?  The campground we were at this time had dishwashing sinks with hot and cold running water at the bathrooms.  Obviously, using one container of water for washing dishes and another for rinsing, rather than running water throughout the process, uses less water and uses less energy.  For our family, after most meals we used 1 small tea kettle of boiling water (1.5 qt) combined with about 3 quarts of cold water to wash all of our dishes.  This is not a lot of water or energy to wash 7+ servings (we were sharing some dishes with friends too).

Camping Frequency

If you’ve never been camping and you’re trying it out for the first time I would honestly recommend taking some paper plates and cups.  Not having to wash a lot of dishes your first time out will give you more time to adjust to camping and concentrate on more required activities – like cooking and hopefully swimming!  Also, if you’re not sure you’re going to camp regularly, it is better to take a few paper goods than invest in quality camping gear the first time you ever go camping.

Ratio of Adults to Small Children

girl putting dishes in drying rack while camping

Ellie helping her grandmother with dishes while camping

We used to hike and camp as a group of adults.  Now most of those adults have children, so we do family camping.  There was a period in there when there were a lot of little children running around – especially compared to the number of adults. When you’re camping you can’t just plop the kids in front of the TV while you wash dishes and you may not want to wait until after they go to bed to wash them either – washing dishes outside in the dark is not the most pleasant experience. Therefore, even if you’re experienced campers, if you’re going with young children and you don’t have extra adults to help with the clean-up tasks, you may want to use paper plates.   While being green is important, for our environment, our planet and each of our health, we each have to choose what is best for us and our families in each situation.

Now that the children we camp with are getting older, including them in washing and drying dishes is a great way to introduce them to the practical parts of camping. This year both of our twins got lessons in how to wash dishes with their grandma.  At 7, they are at an age where they enjoy being given some responsibilities and I hope that next year they will be able to take over most of the dish washing.

Buying Second Hand

two cast iron pans on a Coleman camp stove cooking chocolate chip panckes while camping.

Camping with cast-iron – chocolate chip panackes

If you are going to camp more than once you should consider buying or acquiring reusable dishes for camping.  In our case we camp at least once a year, and some years we camp more often.  Jon’s mother has given us plastic dishes for camping that go in our “chuck box” and are ready for camping each time we go.  These were likely bought new.   However, consider looking at thrift stores or yard sales for camping gear.  Dishes don’t have to be official “camping dishes”,  as long as they are not going to break easily and are fairly durable,  they’re good for camping.  Of course, this probably means plastic, but even we agree that there are times when plastic is the most appropriate choice for an item.  Recently, Jonathan bought each of the twins their own traditional metal “mess kit” from a yard sale down the street.  They were thrilled to have them for camping with the Scouts, and I was thrilled that he had only spent $2 each on them!  The cast iron griddle we used this year was picked up for $5 in good shape from Goodwill and worked great for camping and in our kitchen.

Using Camping Gear as Every Day Dishes – or the Other Way-round

Last year Jon’s mother gave us another set of camping dishes, because we didn’t actually have enough for our whole family, now that she usually camps with us and Timmy is old enough for regular plates & bowls.  This set was actually a really great size for everyday use around our house.   We decided to put the plates and bowls into our cupboard for regular use.  This is great because these dishes don’t sit in a box 11 months out of the year taking up space.  If you do that, don’t forget to pack them for camping.  Alternatively, if you already have a set of plastic dishes, perhaps for picnics or outdoor use, or maybe they are your every-day dishes, consider using them for camping!  Do you really need a separate, special set of dishes? Let the camping gear do double-duty and use it more often and you will lower the effective carbon footprint.


A discussion of reusable utensils could take up a  blog post all on its own.  In fact, we’ve already written that one.

Happy Greening!


Other articles in our Greening Your Camping Series:

You might like these:

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.