The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
August 27, 2008

Compostable Containers: Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

This is a photo of a few things I brought home from the Outside Lands Music Festival Friday night: Two compostable cups made from corn and two compostable potato or cornstarch spoons. (Mine and my friend’s.) As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I forgot to bring my cute reusable bamboo utensils with me. And I didn’t think to bring a cup for wine either so felt lucky to find compostables rather than plastic or Styrofoam.

When I took my compostable cup back to the wine vendor for a refill, the server said, “It’s okay. You can have a new one.” Yeah, I can. But why should I? Just because an item can be composted, does that mean we have to compost it after one use? Just because an item is recyclable, does that mean we are compelled to recycle it immediately?

In yesterday’s post I whined about the “recyclable” plastic wine “glasses” being handed out in the WineHaven tent. Of course we know that plastic recycling is actually downcycling. But even if it weren’t, what if each person who accepted one of those recyclable plastic cups kept it, took it home, and brought it back to the next outdoor event to reuse? How much energy could be saved if people thought in terms of reuse before recycling?

I was considering this stuff while riding BART to work today, musing on how much less energy could be spent on “waste diversion” if less energy were spent to create the waste in the first place. And once I arrived at the office, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity, I opened my email to find a Seattle Times article forwarded to me by Fake Plastic Fish reader Ken Mott about how Microsoft’s cafeteria has recently received certified-green restaurant status from the Green Restaurant Association, in part by switching out plastic and Styrofoam for all compostable dishes, cups, and utensils.

When I look at this photo, I don’t see an effort to protect the environment. I just see waste. More waste. Better than plastic, sure. At least it’s compostable. But think of all the materials and energy that went into creating these utensils that will most likely be used once and discarded. Not to mention the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the corn these things are made from. According to the article, Microsoft says, “Our goal is to have 50 percent of what was going to the landfill now go to Cedar Grove [composting facility].”

Why not use durable utensils, cups, and dishes and avoid creating waste in the first place?

One change that Microsoft has made is to substitute compostable cups for their previous Styrofoam coffee cups. But, according to the article, the new cups take some getting used to. In a statement that would be funny if it weren’t so maddening, Mark Freeman, senior manager in charge of food services, says of the new cup, “‘It starts composting the minute you use it,’ noting that employees have learned not to leave half-full cups for long periods of time to avoid spills.”

You know, in all the time I’ve had my reusable mug, not once has it started to compost, no matter how long I’ve used it. Why isn’t Microsoft encouraging employees to bring their own mugs to work? Or giving them reusable mugs as a little perk? What will it take for us to get away from this use once and toss mentality?

It’s not easy for any of us. Even I ended up with waste (albeit plastic-free) at the end of the night: waste which could have been avoided if I’d done a bit more planning ahead and brought my own utensils and cups to the festival. But just because my dishes can be composted doesn’t mean I have to toss them in the green bin immediately. The paperboard bowl will soon become plant food, but the cups and spoons can be used again (as long as I don’t wash them in super hot water.)

And maybe those in charge of greening festivals and conferences and the cafeterias of mega-corporations would be wise to change their vocabulary and think in terms of waste reduction rather than simply waste diversion.

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33 Comments on "Compostable Containers: Just because we can doesn’t mean we should."

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bamboo canes garden
6 years 17 days ago

Thank you for this blog post. I think it’s important for people to read you.

7 years 6 days ago

I have been contacted by Mr Michael Dwork. He disputes my critiques, I believe my comments to be valid, readers may choose to disregard my previous posts, and should make their own inquires.

Richard – Murwillumbah, Australia.

7 years 15 days ago

Reply to Paul Smith, who is working for Verterra:

Critique of Michael Dwork, founder of Verterra

I am an occasional reader of Time magazine and stumbled upon a business article by Jeremy Caplan on Verterra Dinnerware in the October 13, 2008 edition (Australian) of Time (page 52). Also at:,28804,1706699_1707550_1846340,00.html

Jeremy Caplan’s article is careful not to over-state or claim. However, it strongly implies that Michael Dwork had an “idea” in southern India in 2006, that Mr Dwork developed his idea with “engineer friends”, “crossed Asia to find plants for his plates”, “through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia”, “testing dozens”, “in search of the… Read more »

Paul Smith
7 years 2 months ago

I totally agree with your perspective. And I think there are some compostable products that meet a need, in few different ways:

Verterra are plates made entirely from palm leaves and the steam used to shape them. No binders to give them shape and leech into your food as you eat. Yes, they’re ultimately disposable, but they are made from what would otherwise be agricultural waste, burnt. They take very little energy to make, apparently only a bit more than the CEO’s little NYC apartment. They are washable (I’ve used mine more then 10 times now) and compost quickly, no… Read more »

7 years 2 months ago

here here! i havent had a chance to read every comment, so sorry if i’m being repetitive. once again, you have hit on issues i think about ALL the time! i’ll never understand why disposables are always the first choice. I read what one reader wrote about the hoops an organization has to jump through to deal with cleaning dishes. it seems like those hoops would have been worth it in long-term cost savings alone for microsoft. not only would they not have to buy all these materials, but they would have to deal… Read more »

7 years 2 months ago

I have to agree somewhat with Kimba about having reusable products vs. compostable products.

While I understand the need to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our land fills, we should also work on reducing our overall impact on the environment.

As Kimba pointed out, to reuse plates and utensils in a public setting requires lots of water, industrial machines, and soaps and chemicals for disinfecting.

Energy is needed not only for running the machines in the kitchen, but also to treat the water before it comes out of the faucet and after it goes down… Read more »

Mary Hunt
7 years 3 months ago

Beth – I had purchased compostable wine glasses for a professional event and then the night before (as in the middle of the night) I realized I just couldn’t use them. Two hours before the event I rented 200 glasses and I’m very glad I did.

7 years 3 months ago

Hi, even though I think compostable plastic is little better, I agree that it is not good enough. There is some very strange psychology that motivates our disposable culture, which I cannot understand. It is a laziness mixed in with a germ-paranoia. Case in point, my office: it has a dishwasher (so needing to wash dishes would not be an issue) and it has real plates, cutlery, and cups- yet most of the employees want to use paper plates, plastic utensils and styrofoam cups. I think for some it is just simply really bad, deeply ingrained habits to use disposables.… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

Hi Beth – I have the same musings, especially in restaurants that have wooden disposable cutlery. On a lighter note, I have an award waiting for you over at The Rubbish Diet, with thanks for all the work that you put in and the inspirational message that comes with it. Please pop over when you’re ready ;-D

7 years 3 months ago

I worked for HP for 16 years, and they had industrial china dishes and mugs, heavy-duty plastic glasses that were washed, and stainless steel forks, knives and spoons (cheap but serviceable). The only thing that got thrown away was paper napkins.

No reason why Microsoft can’t do the same. The capital expenditure of dishwashing equipment will pay for itself in short order. Meals are so much more enjoyable with real plates, mugs and utensils.

I have a little set of stainless knife,fork,spoon in a travel pouch that I keep in my car. I take… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

Lest we all forget there are 4 R’s:


Notice that recycle is last and there are lots of things to do before we get there. Most important is refuse. Refuse to take that item into your life, refuse to buy it, refuse to use it.

7 years 3 months ago

hi Beth
congratulations for doing this challenge. I just published a post on my blog looking at a few blos of people following similar challenges to this one, giving up plastic. I hope you find it interesting and hopefully inspiring. I also invite you to leave your comments:

7 years 3 months ago

Great article! I’ve been suspicious of this compostable stuff. Also, it makes me bloody crazy that people who buy coffee every day (or pour it themselves at work) can’t figure out to bring their own mug, or travel mug. Sometimes they even discount.

Also, my local natural foods store allows me to fill my own containers, maybe because I tare them myself, they don’t have to touch them. Otherwise I have to buy a jar from them, or use a plastic bag. Much better.

7 years 3 months ago

I have to say I agree with you beth, HOWEVER- I think it is an improvenment that restaurants ans others are at least switching to compostable items. The next step is non-compostable actual silver ware, cups and plates. Tully’s coffee here in Seattle recently went to compostable cups, the first coffee house to do so (I still use my stainless steel wide bottom 16oz. Starbucks commuter mug- I have had it for over 10 years. And Boeing recently went to Tullys and kicked out starbucks. Although I don’t know the exact reason they did this but I am hoping the… Read more »

The Green Cat
7 years 3 months ago

Beth I hear you on this one. I did a post on this recently We’ve become very cavalier about one-use items because they are “recyclable”. But recycling something after one use does not justify using it only once. Thanks for this post!

7 years 3 months ago

Wonderful post. A few years ago, I had one of my students collect his energy drink cans for a month. He drank two a day, on average, so you can imagine how much that adds up to. Once the whole class looked at them all, we talked about where they all go and how much waste we all generate.

It’s frustrating because it seems that everything is working against us. But I feel like the best thing I can do is educate my students and be a role model by doing things like carrying my Sigg or… Read more »

Small Change
7 years 3 months ago

completely agree with you- and just wanted to say, i just read the article on grist featuring the take back the filter campaign :) you rock!

7 years 3 months ago

agreenfire – YES!

Here in the condo building I live in there is a great fear of dryer lint!

People are frantic that others remove their own lint…a material that collects from CLEAN clothes as they are dried. It is a tempest in a teapot, a huge issue over the terrible thought that one might be forced to touch someone else’s LINT. Meanwhile other people’s piles of damp clothes removed from washers pile up unremarked.

My hunny bunny is frantic when leftovers stay in the fridge more than a day or two, or if uncooked meat from the store starts to darken she’s… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

Great post. I think the biggest problems (which some commenters touched on) are germphobic Americans and Health Code Regulations. I agree that we need clean plates and silverware but I think a lot of consumers have an ‘eww’ reaction to anything that might have been used by someone before them. Commercials and the media teach us what a ‘dirty’ place the world is and how we need to be hyper aware of being clean, and keeping our food safe.

I think before reusable plates, forks, knives, and mugs become the norm again, there has to be a shift… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

May this latest post of yours never bio-degrade! You continue to stand far above the rest as my favorite Berkeleyite. And, if anyone says “California” to me, your face and Arnold’s immediately pop into my head!

We like going to Panera because they offer mugs instead of plastic cups for coffee.

At the Spice House where we buy our spices, they refuse to refill perfectly good glass bottles. You have to take yet another bottle (and plastic cap) each time you buy. Probably a health dept rule

If something is truly biodegradable it should start to get gooey not long after exposure to… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

I completely agree

I recently returned to Microsoft after a year’s absence. The enormity of the disposables used in the cafeterias had always driven me crazy, and I wondered why they didn’t just use real metal cutlery and real plates.

I bring my own cutlery, plate/bowl and water bottle to work, but doubt I will ever convince many to follow me on this.

Coming back after a year, I was very pleasantly surprised to see the plastics replaced by compostables. Better than no change, at least.

As an earlier commenter pointed out though, there is a big problem with people just putting everything in… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
7 years 3 months ago

I’ve been to several events where the disposables are compostable, but they’re all going into regular trash bins. What’s the difference when they get into an anaerobic landfill?

I’ve heard that at the DNC, volunteers are sorting through all the trash cans to separate compostable waste from recyclable from “real” garbage. I hope that in the future we will look back at that low-tech technique and laugh. Or maybe it is a new political scheme to keep unemployment down.

Our “disposable” silverware for outside meals is old spoons and forks bought at Goodwill. From our perspective it’s disposable, i.e., if… Read more »

Green Bean
7 years 3 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. The whole idea of compostable is maddening to me! It’s still all disposable! Sure, I’ll pick compostable over plastic if I’m left without a choice. There’s a new ice cream shop in town that boasts its compostable cups. There’s another one, one town over, that offers its ice cream in the cone or in cute, reusable ceramic cups with real metal spoons. Guess which one tastes better?? There’s just something about eating with real utensils and plates that makes life feel more real, more meaningful, more enjoyable, less .… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

I both agree and disagree with you on this…our grocery store just switched to these containers for all their “house” brand foods – salads, cheese, etc – so people that would never think of plastic vs. non-plastic don’t have a choice, which reduces the plastic in our wastestream. It’s hard to get everyone onboard with not using plastic, and I like this as a interim solution.

On the other hand, I hate seeing us switch from using oil to package stuff to food to package stuff; seems making people bring their own containers is the only way to go.

Solutions sure are… Read more »

Ellen Halloran
7 years 3 months ago

What this country needs, no, what the entire world needs , is basic education on the issues of production, recycling, composting, and ecology. If only these ideas could be seriously addressed in elementary education – by teachers who have a wide understanding of the issues – there would be hope for the future of earth. I would like to see a serious curriculum developed that is not underwritten by Dow, Microsoft, or Monsanto or any other partisan manufacturer who sees a new market in these ideas.
In the meantime I am daily inspired by blogs such as Fake Plastic… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

LOVE this post. So right on.

7 years 3 months ago

We have a cafe upstairs, and whenever I eat there, I show up with the same cardboard tray and Styrofoam cup. They always offer me new ones, and I have to explain why I don’t want new ones. I almost think they’re afraid it’s a food safety issue for them.

Very confusing.

7 years 3 months ago

Hi there – I’ve never commented before. Love your blog.

I owned a restaurant for a bunch of years. We used regular plates, glasses, silver, etc. – but I can tell you that in Virginia, where I lived at the time, the Health Department had a ton of extra hoops to jump through if you wanted to go this route: a commercial dishwasher, three sinks, adequate drying space, expensive chemicals, equipment and supplies – and they required an only slightly less elaborate setup for off-site catering. It’s basically impossible in a temporary outdoor setting given the tiny profit margin most… Read more »

7 years 3 months ago

I totally agree that durables trump “green” disposables. That’s why I choose the Diva Cup over organic cotton tampons and cloth prefolds for my son over Seventh Generation or G diapers.

By the way, I LOVE my reusable bamboo utensils as well.

A Slice of the Pie
7 years 3 months ago

Right on with all that you’ve said.

I don’t know what the compostable utensils and cups are really made of or what improvements have been made in the rate they compose. About six years ago my family and I attended a local earth fair. They had a vendor giving out sample compostable golf tees, since the little plastic ones are so bad for the environment. We took three, one for each big kid to do an experiment to see how long it takes to break down.

Whatever they were made of didn’t break down ever in our not-so-scientific experiment. You might… Read more »

Plastic Glass Supplier
7 years 3 months ago

Suppose I’m the enemy, being a distributor of disposables, but thought I’d make a point or two to add to your blog…
Did you know parts of China are felling trees to create space to grow corn and bamboo crops to meet the demand for supposedly ‘green’ disposables which will ’biodegrade’.

Most of the paper cups produced at the moment can be recycled into something else, adding this new biodegradable kind of paper cup with PLA lining into the ‘mix’, however noble the intentions, will create more waste than previously created with the oil based poly lined paper cups.

If one of these… Read more »

The Purloined Letter
7 years 3 months ago

YES! Please spread this message far and wide.

I’m disappointed that my favorite cafe just switched from washable china to disposable. When I complained (partly because of the environment and partly because it ruins the feeling of opulence that real stuff evokes), the management was defensive and said it was compostable rather than disposable. THOSE ARE NOT THAT DIFFERENT (especially when they all thrown in the landfill rather than a commercial composter)!

7 years 3 months ago

SO agree with you on this. The compostable stuff is neat and serves its purpose (like the festival you attended) but should NOT be considered a viable substitute for DURABLE goods.