Student-Led LCA Report: Hixon Center Shareware Plate Environmentally Preferable to Single-Use Paper Plate

A life cycle assessment (LCA) report produced by Harvey Mudd College students and Hixon Center director Tanja Srebotnjak concludes that Hixon Center Shareware plates are environmentally preferable than single-use paper plates.

In Fall 2016, the Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design launched its Shareware Program at Harvey Mudd College to incentivize the use of reusable dishes and utensils and eliminate the use of single-use products for campus events. The service is free to faculty and staff, and available for student groups on an ad hoc basis. Following the launch of the program, the Hixon Center received inquiries regarding the comparative environmental impact of the Shareware as compared to disposables, considering that the plates must be washed after each use and might require significant amounts of water, energy, and cleaning products (e.g., detergent).

Professor Tanja Srebotnjak, director of the Hixon Center, proposed a comparative LCA analysis of Shareware plates and single-use paper plates to students in her ENGR038 course, “Introduction to Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainable Environmental Design,” under the broader hypothesis that reusable items were preferable to disposable items. Life cycle assessment is a methodology for systematically compiling and evaluating the material and energy use and associated environmental releases (e.g., air emissions, wastewater effluents, and landfill contributions) that accompany a product from cradle (i.e., the sourcing of raw materials) to grave (i.e., its fate at the end of its useful life). According to Srebotnjak:

The Shareware vs. paper plate study provided my students with the practical, but also challenging, opportunity to put what they’ve learned in the course into practice. They researched and dug up as much information as they could about each step of both products’ life cycles – encountering typical LCA obstacles such as proprietary information restrictions and outdated or not quite comparable data.

The student teams produced short reports on the results of their analyses, which have since been consolidated and edited into a final report by Srebotnjak. The report concludes that the Shareware steel plates are preferable to paper plates, the former outperforming the latter in all assessed impact categories. The report does indicate some disparity in environmental performance between the two products, and according to Srebotnjak, readers of the report should consider the following:

The paper plate most strongly impacts natural resource reserves and ecosystems, while the steel plate is most influential in damaging natural resources and human health. It is also important to remember that this study compared two specific types of plates and should hence not be used to draw conclusions about other Shareware items and other types of disposable products. It is also always important to consider the scope and purpose of an LCA study and what environmental impact categories are considered to be relevant.

The Hixon Center aims to continue offering opportunities to students on campus to conduct meaningful coursework that might aid in supporting sustainability efforts and programs on campus.

The full report can be read under the “Publications” section of the Hixon Center’s Publications and Media Content page. Questions about the report and the life cycle assessment course can be sent to Professor Tanja Srebotnjak at