Their names range from the catchy (TaterWare, WheatWare, SpudWare) to the merely descriptive (Compostable utensils, PLA utensils, etc.) And while they are touted as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics, very few of them are actually compostable in a real world situation.
Take, for example, TaterWare, made from potato starch, of course. Many of the eateries in San Francisco provide this brand of take-out cutlery and feel good about it because with San Francisco’s new composting law, these things have the best shot at actually being composted. Trouble is, even if the utensils make it to the compost facility, there is little chance they will truly break down all the way.
A program manager from Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling sent me the following photos of TaterWare that had been through the city’s commercial compost operation (60-90 days):
Let me reiterate: These photos were taken AFTER commercial composting at high heat. We know these things won’t break down in a backyard compost. Turns out they won’t break down in a commercial compost either. As Chris from Golden Gate Disposal wrote me, “Above is the purported ‘biodegradable’ taterware. I guess it may be in geologic time frames, (millennia) although not demonstrably in a composting operation.”
Last fall, at the SF Green Festival, I met a couple of vendors selling a different product: WheatWare.
I mentioned what I had learned about TaterWare, and they assured me that WheatWare was different. In fact, they claimed, before deciding to carry the product in their eco store, they themselves had tested it out by simply burying it in their backyard. So, I should be able to duplicate their results, right?
I buried the comb in my front yard (deeper than what you see in the photo) and covered it up with a brick.
This morning (approximately 90 days later) I dug it up.
Not much difference. It still looks and feels like a comb. It might be a tiny bit softer. If I squint. To be fair, I don’t know what would happen to the WheatWare at a commercial compost facility. But also to be fair, how many people in the U.S. have access to a commercial compost facility in the first place???
So what happens when this stuff gets loose in the environment? Specifically what happens if it makes its way to the ocean like any other type of plastic? If it doesn’t break down in the ground or in the high heat of a compost operation, it’s sure not going to break down in cold sea water. It’ll photodegrade into smaller pieces, for sure. Pieces that sea animals can swallow.
And why are we investing materials and energy into creating single-use disposable items in the first place? I’ve got more to say about biodegradable/compostable bio-plastics in a future post. But for right now — what’s the alternative to disposable utensils of any type? Bring our own Reusables!