Dear Umbra,

Maybe you can help settle this dispute between my husband and me. He likes to use paper plates for quick/short meals like toast in the morning, cheese and crackers in the evening, etc. He claims that he’s saving energy by not having to wash a dish. (We have a new energy-efficient dishwasher and an on-demand hot water heater.) I say he’s wasting paper unnecessarily, and besides, I hate seeing paper plates all over the place. What say you?

Katherine Griffin
Richmond, Calif.

Dearest Katherine,

You are the victim of my periodic tendency to think small stuff like this is no big deal. My periodic tendency attitude declares the situation a draw. I mean, you’re right — he is unnecessarily wasting paper, because you have plates already; and also why are you seeing paper plates all over the place? He leaves them behind after he uses them? If household roles are defined and you are the dish cleaner/tidier, then the well-known Driver Controls the Radio Rule comes into force, and you get to choose which dishes are used.

What if I start picking them up?

As regards the environment, ceramic plates are only as good as their lifespan. It takes energy and resources to make a ceramic plate, more than it takes to make a paper plate. Ceramics only win when they are used long and well. Which, let’s be frank, is fairly easy with a plate (point in your favor). Also on your side, what’s the point of laying out for a good dishwasher and on-demand hot water heater if you don’t intend to use them?

You might be able to bring more data to the dispute, and bring the dispute to a new level, by learning about trash disposal (I assume you are not composting the plates), water availability, and the power grid in your area. Is solid waste a big problem near Richmond? Is there a drought or water shortage of any kind? What kind of energy powers your water heater — coal? Natural gas? Hydro? Put the answers to all these questions together and you may have a better idea as to whether saving water and water-heating energy by using (recycled) paper plates might actually be a good idea. Perhaps the local solid-waste situation will be dire, and that will solve the problem.

On your husband’s side, however, these objects are small and non-electronic, so they rank low on the eco-urgency scale. I permit you to lay aside this argument and move on to a new, fresh trivial argument of your choice. We all know that the trivial argument is what makes a household go ’round.

Cleanly,
Umbra