Sustainable Living

The insider’s scoop to compostable disposables

Guest post by Maia Welbel

If you’re working on reducing your plastic waste, you may have at some point opted for compostable single-use utensils or dishware, whether it was for an event you hosted or while grabbing lunch on the go. But are those earthy looking forks and bowls really better than plastic? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think. They actually require a very specific disposal process (they won’t become compost if you throw them in the trash!), and some companies even design products with the “eco-friendly” look of compostable materials when in fact, they cannot be composted.

I wanted to find out if and how we should be using compostable utensils and dishware, so I dug up the most important things you need to know, and consulted my friend Jonathan Scheffel, the founder of Healthy Soil Compost (a bike-powered compost pickup service in Chicago!), to get you all the answers. Here’s what you need to know about compostable disposables.

What are these compostable plastic alternatives made of?

Single-use utensils and dishware can be made from corn, sugarcane, potatoes, soybeans, wood, bamboo, and variety of other organic materials.

How can I tell if a product is compostable?

Just because a product looks “earthy” or is labeled with environmental imagery, that doesn’t mean it’s compostable. Companies sometimes label their product as “biodegradable,” which is often interpreted to mean compostable. But don’t be fooled—biodegradable just means that a material will eventually decompose in the natural environment, it can’t necessarily be composted.

Composting is a process in which carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and microorganisms interact under specific moisture and heat conditions to convert organic materials into a nutrient rich substance that can be used to fertilize soil. Non-compostable items in the mix will hinder this process. 

To make sure an item is safe to throw in the compost bin, check to see if it is ASTM6400 certified or BPI certified. Both ensure that the product will compost effectively in an industrial aerobic composting facility.

What happens to compostable products if they are thrown into a landfill?

They will decompose at about the same rate as their plastic counterparts. Composting is an aerobic process, meaning it requires oxygen. Since most landfills are sealed, their contents undergo anaerobic decomposition (no oxygen), so composting cannot occur.

Can I throw compostable utensils and dishware into my at-home compost pile?

Probably not. Commercial compost facilities can maintain the ideal composting conditions that allow these products to process fully. Since you have less control over the conditions of your at-home pile, they may not break down. But if you subscribe to a compost pickup service that brings your organic waste to a commercial processing facility, feel free to toss those spoons and plates in your bucket.

What should I do with compostable dishes and utensils if I don’t have a compost pickup service?

If you got the product from a restaurant, cafe, or grocery store, they should have a compost bin on site. If they don’t, call them out on it!

If you bought them for an event or are using them in your home, search online to find out whether there is an industrial composting facility near you. Findacomposter.com is one good resource for this. Contact the facility and see if you can drop them off.

If none of those are options, simply treat them like any other single-use plastic item—best to avoid them and choose reusable products instead. Don’t put compostable products into the recycling bin because most are not recyclable.

Though it seems like a better alternative if you end up sending it to landfill, the bottom line is that compostable products that wind up in landfills are about as bad for the environment as plastic. So there’s no good in a food retailer offering compostable products without a place to properly dispose of them.

The takeaways

Compostable dishes and utensils are a great, more sustainable alternative to plastic if they actually land in a compost pile. But given that it’s not always easy to access a commercial compost operation, here’s what I recommend:

Opt for reusable first. If you can bring your own mug, tupperware, fork, etc. instead of using a compostable or plastic product, that will always be the option with the least environmental impact. Use compostables if there’s a compost bin nearby or if you subscribe to a compost pick up service. And if not, choose recyclable products and make sure they end up clean in the recycling bin.

Maia Webel holds a Masters from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, specializing in environmental reporting. You can learn more about  Maia and her work here.

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