Reusable vs. Disposable – What is truly better for the environment?

As we move away from single use plastics here in Canada (the Trudeau government plans on banning single use plastics by 2021), many companies have chosen to provide their customers and clients with alternative product counterparts that are either reusable or biodegradable/compostable/degradable. While we are all for the biodegradable/compostable/degradable products, we question the sustainability of more reusable products entering the marketplace, such as bags and water bottles.

Reusable items have their time and place – do not get us wrong. When used in the right ways (which we will explain in this post), reusable products could be immensely important in protecting the environment. However, when used in the wrong ways, reusable products could cause detrimental affects to the environment – diminishing large amounts of natural resources and creating more garbage. To produce a reusable bag or water bottle (or any other reusable item for that matter), many natural resources need to be used to create that product. There is no product on this earth that does not have an impact on the environment.

In our current society, we largely rely on ‘throw away’ products (especially in the age of Covid-19) and the over consumption of goods. Even when we are not in a pandemic, it is arguable that for the majority of society, throwing things out prior to the end of their life, is normal. This is largely due to the fact that the next new, bigger and better versions are available. This is the largest issue with reusable products that replace their disposal counterparts – if the reusable product is thrown out prematurely or not used enough times before its end of life, then reusable products are actually more harmful to the environment. This, coupled with the large amount/variety of reusable items per household, validates the concern regarding the sustainability of our current consumption patterns of reusable products.

I, myself have fallen victim to marketing gimmicks that claim I ‘need’ this new reusable bottle/bag/coffee tumbler because it is ‘more ecofriendly’ (or just fancier) then my current one. Although that may be the case, buying that new one to throw out my old one is not environmentally sustainable at all. It is still in perfectly good condition, but marketing sells and then the cycle continues. Eventually, before I know it, I have more reusable water bottles in my house then I have plates. I know that I am not the only one that this happens to, and its all in the name of marketing and the process of ‘thinking’ you are doing better for the environment. This is not sustainable spending or environmentally responsible.

The same case stands with plastic bags vs reusable bags. How many reusable bags do I have in my house? Too many. I know that for the majority of Canadians, this is the case. Sometimes you get them for free with a purchase, or maybe you have bought a set from your local grocery store. Either way, if you are anything like me, you will end up leaving them in your car or at your house when you go to do groceries and end up needing to buy plastic bags anyway. This is not sustainable. According to a study in Denmark, you would need to use the reusable cotton bag over 7,000 times for it to be ‘worth’ the amount of resources used to create it. 7,000 times! That is a lot of groceries.

The issue with all these reusable items is that we over-consume them, do not use them enough to warrant their natural resource impact and then at the end of their lives, they are landfill garbage. 99% of these products are not recyclable or compostable. This is where the reusable vs single use (or a few use) plastics debate gets tricky. Here in Niagara, we are actually able to recycle polyethylene, the type of plastic regular grocery bags are made of, fairly efficiently. Water bottles, styrofoam and aluminum are also all recyclable here in Niagara. Coffee cups from your regular fast food joint are not recyclable in the Niagara Region system, however here at Davidson Environmental, coffee cups are compostable in our recycling stream. So from a waste generation perspective, reusable is not better because as stated above, most reusable items are designated for the landfill – unless, of course, you use the item enough to warrant the disposal of it. But how many times do you need to use it to make it worth it? There does not seem to be a clear answer. Although I do not believe we can necessarily put a value on natural resources, we all know how important they are for us and the environment. Given this, consuming less natural resources per person is beneficial.

However, another level of this debate to consider is that even though all these single use plastic items are recyclable, in some way or another, are they being disposed of properly, every time? No. Water bottles, coffee cups and plastic bags are ending up in our waterways, oceans and lakes, effecting our livelihood and the animals that live in those conditions. This directly falls onto careless consumers and again, the ‘throw away’ life style we mentioned earlier in this blog post. In this case, when not disposed of properly, reusable items are far better from a waste generation perspective because at least they don’t get constantly littered.

In sum, there are so many things to assess when you buy a reusable item that are far reach the span of the average consumers thought process when making a purchase. We are not saying that all reusable items are bad or that you should stop using them. Our hope is to provide you with guidelines that help to influence your choices when making your next ‘reusable item’ purchase.

Here are some things to consider:

If you already have reusable items:

  • Use them until you can no longer use them (metal ones can last decades!)
  • Do not purchase more until you have fully used your previous ones (throwing items out prematurely is just a waste of natural resources and takes up space in the landfill – you do not need the next new thing! Yours still works!)
  • When it comes time to purchase a new one, consider the below guidelines

If you are in the market to purchase new ones:

  • Look at the company you are purchasing the item from – do they have ethical or sustainable values?

 

 

 

ABOUT US: Established in 1996, Davidson Environmental is a waste haulage company based out of St. Catharines, Ontario. In 1996, James Davidson, Owner & CEO of Davidson Environmental, decided to explore an area of waste management that would be new to the Niagara Region- recycling organic materials through composting. Starting with a trailer and 12 totes at a flower shop, James has built a company that today employs over 30 Niagara region residents and runs 24 hours a day. Although we are a diverse company serving all the waste needs of businesses of varying sizes, we have kept our primary focus on food waste organics. Our service area encompasses the Regions of Niagara, Hamilton, Haldimand, Halton, Oxford, Brant, Norfolk, Waterloo, Wellington, Perth, Huron, Grey, Middlesex, Lambton, Chatem-Kent, and Essex. We are also able to service Toronto by using cooperative services with another organics company. We have 10 trucks, capable of servicing any waste disposal need your business may have. Today, Davidson Environmental is proud to offer a variety of cost-effective, clean, simple and environmentally responsible methods of disposing of the waste produced by your business in Southern and South Western Ontario.