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Questions about Compostable Serviceware

By Anika Dasgupta, Think Zero Intern

Contrary to popular belief, compostable ware such as utensils, cups and containers are not always good for the environment. Compostable ware is generally made from poly lactic acid (PLA) or bioplastics which can be derived from various types of sugars and biodegradable materials such as cornstarch, wheat, beets, and potato starch. Although compostable ware decomposes significantly faster than petroleum derived plastics, compostable ware needs to be in the right environment to actually compost. A closer look at compostable ware reveals that the label “compostable” is not a guarantee that the product will actually break down in a composting environment.

Compostable products are designed to break down in industrial composting facilities, which have specific conditions that allow for the efficient degradation of bioplastics. These facilities use high heat to break down the materials into small pieces, which can then be composted and biodegraded. However, in a home compost bin and in the regular landfill, these products won't really break down. When compostable products are littered or improperly disposed of, they can cause harm to wildlife and contaminate waters just like regular plastics. Even when compostable ware is properly disposed of, the quality of the resulting compost is not as good as compost made from truly organic materials. When these products break down, they turn into a sticky, resiny debris that creates poor compost that is not rich and nutritious for plants.

In addition, these biodegradable and composting utensils cannot be recycled because they are not made from plastics. If they are mistakenly put into the recycling system, recycling facilities send the entire batch as waste, instead of sorting it, causing a large amount of plastics to go unrecycled.

While compostable ware may be a better alternative to single-use plastic products, it takes a lot of resources to properly dispose of them. Not many people have access to commercial composting facilities, which means that the compostable products may end up in the landfill, negating their sustainability benefits. It is important for companies and individuals who use compostable ware to understand the proper disposal methods to ensure that the products do not end up in landfills or cause harm to the environment. While compostable ware may be a step towards sustainability, it is not a perfect solution and should be used in conjunction with other efforts to reduce single-use plastics.

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