When it comes to finding ways to conserve water at home, one of the first places people look is the dishwasher, or, more specifically, their dishes. It would seem obvious that using paper plates requires less water, simply because they don't need to be washed. But as those dishes pile up in the trash, destined to spend eternity in a landfill, you also have to consider all the water required to make the paper that was used to make those plates. So, if you're looking to conserve water at home, are you really making the best choice by going disposable?
This: Paper Plates
Pros: They're convenient, easy to dispose of when you're hosting large gatherings, and they do save water in that they require no washing.
Cons: Assuming you're using paper plates and not the newer biodegradable sorts made from sugarcane, bamboo, or other plant starches, it takes lots of water to produce them: up to 12 gallons of water to produce one pack of 22 10-inch medium-weight dinner plates that weighs a pound (16 ounces), which is roughly half a gallon for each plate. There's also potential for another water problem—pollution. Paper pulping mills use caustic chemicals, which can contaminate waterways. And, finally, there are issues relating to disposal: Paper plates can't be recycled (the water needed to make paper is cut in half when it's made from recycled paper) or composted, due to a petroleum-based wax coating applied to prevent leaks.
That: Reusable Plates
Pros: You buy them once and never need to replace them, particularly if you go with something durable like ceramic or stainless steel. For example, Corelle-brand plates are made from glass bonded in such a way that the plates are virtually indestructible.
Cons: Information on the amount of water needed to make a plastic, steel, ceramic, or glass plate is scarce, which limits the discussion to how you wash them at home. Assuming your dishwasher is old and uses 10 to 15 gallons of water per load, and accommodates 14 place settings, as most standard-size dishwashers do, you'd be using between three-quarters to a single gallon of water to wash each plate.