The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 3, 2010

Are Compostable Utensils Really Compostable?

TaterWareTheir 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.

TaterWare

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):

TaterWare does not compost

TaterWare does not compost

TaterWare does not compost

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.”

WheatWare

Last fall, at the SF Green Festival, I met a couple of vendors selling a different product: WheatWare.

WheatWare Comb

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.

WheatWare Comb buried in ground

WheatWare Comb buried in ground

This morning (approximately 90 days later) I dug it up.

WheatWare Comb after 90 days

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!

You might also enjoy...

ADVERTISEMENT

Classic stainless steel bento boxes and cotton lunch bags.

I only post ads for products I use myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

Leave a Reply

68 Comments on "Are Compostable Utensils Really Compostable?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest

I got a clear biodegradable to go cup from a diner in SF. It started degrading before it left my house. I can’t remember what it was made of…maybe corn? Whatever it was…it had me thinking about why everyone isn’t using it.

I’ve tried these experiments in my compost with equally sad results. The one piece of plastic I do own though are CRESBI crates for grocery shopping. I plan on passing them on to my grandchildren they’re that tough and that useful.

the burying of the comb is not at all an accurate test. you need heat to break it down. even a home compost would have been a better test for the comb than burying it.

I happened across this discussion while trying to figure out if there is any benefit to providing “compostable” cups if they will not go into a composter. I.E. Are compostable coffee cups better for the environment in the landfill than cups not touted as compostable or even (nice and cheap) foam cups? It looks like the general consensus is: No. A shame, I am willing to buy the (very expensive) compostables, but I’m pretty sure 90% of them will not be turned in for composting. A related question: many kinds of plastics are recyclable, why aren’t regular plastic wares recycled?… Read more »
Hi Mike. There are different kinds of compostable cups. Are you talking about the paper cups with compostable lining or the corn plastic cups? The paper ones will compost. The plastic ones may not. And they are not allowed in Certified Organic compost anyway. The reason that it’s harder to recycle some plastics is that they are often made of composite materials and can’t easily be recycled. Also, recycling is a market, and if there is no market for a particular material, it will not be recycled. It might interest you to know that in communities that accept plastics #1… Read more »

One note – someone said GGR in San Francisco “accepts biodegradable cutlery” – they do not, they send them to the landfill. They compost BPI-certified compostable items, and they recycle all hard plastics (as Chris himself once told me, “just lick the fork and you’re good to go”). Biodegradable is greenwashing, pure and simple.

I realize that many eco-minded people would like to see these biodegradable utensils disappear altogether in 90 days and maybe there is some misleading done by some of the companies that make them, but overall, think of the big picture. The alternative is to have a petroleum based plastic utensil sitting in the landfill basically forever. If it takes 90 months instead of 90 days for the “compostable” products to decompose, that’s a huge improvement over the alternative. Of course it would be better to bring your own utensils/cups/straws but we also need to be realistic in what we expect… Read more »
I found your results to be quite interesting. It is true that the words biodegradable and compostable are being used rather loosely to describe disposable products of all kinds. The fact is, the only disposable cutlery or plates, bowls, etc. that are truly biodegradable and compostable are those that are 100% natural and organic. Therefore, they return to nature completely (not just disappear to the eye) and they don’t require a special facility to help them break down. On the market, that leaves you 3 options: bamboo, wood, or palm leaves. Check out these sites: palm leaf plates: http://www.verterra.com wooden… Read more »
Wheatware in Dead Dirt? Flawed Test? An Important Discussion for America. First, Wheatware.com states that “microbially-active soil” is required for bio-compostability of Wheatware products, (per Wheatware packaging/website). The dirt test at least shows that your “backyard dirt” lacks microbial life, which is rampant across America. The DIRT TEST opens an important discussion. Why won’t just “plain dirt” cause biodegradation? What is lacking? Have you ever seen grass cuttings, left behind months ago, still sitting there on a lawn? The natural microbes are missing. Why? First, many gardeners will unknowingly apply to lawns and gardens certain “green it up” fertilizers, placing… Read more »
This is a common misunderstanding. The Taterware items are marked as biodegradable not compostable. Here is info from NewBiodegradable.com Biodegradability & Compostability Degradable Plastic is plastic which will undergo a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties. Please note that there is no requirement that the plastic has to be degrade from the action of “naturally occurring microorganism” or any of the other criteria required for compostable plastics. Biodegradable Plastic is plastic which will degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganism, such as bacteria, fungi etc. over a period… Read more »
FIrst of all … the corn-based utensils are not biodegradable. They are compostable. As an architect I became concerned with this issue many years ago before it was in vogue and began working on a sustainable alternative to flatware. I know this is a shameless promotion of the alternative (www.curvware.com), but it’s real and can reduce water, gas, electricity and chemical usage associated with washing flatware by between 80% – 90%. This only applies to food service … not domestic (home) use. All the same, it could save tens of trillions of gallons of water in U.S. restaurants. Just speaking… Read more »

I haven’t tried the utensils, but the compostable shopping bags degrade pretty quickly. I put my fava bean pods in one of those bags, and it only took a few days for the bag’s bottom to practically disappear.

Beth Terry– I agree, the conditions for whether or not something is actually compostable are unclear and manufacturers and distributors of these products should do a better job of indicating the differences between products which are commercially compostable and those that are naturally compostable. I work for a group purchasing organization (GPO) of compostable, biodegradable, and eco-friendly products called Viv in SF. We distribute compostable cutlery and plastics and indicate up front whether these products must be composted at a specific heat in a commercial composter or can be naturally composted as demonstrated in your example above. Check out this… Read more »
I am disappointed to see no breakdown of the compostable wares. However, for a supposed trial of compostables, burying something in the dirt is NOT composting it. I just looked into industrial composting definition (would be as an alternative treatment in urban trash processing). A fair test would be placing in in a hot compost pile for 3-6 weeks (at least 3x3x3 feet plus that includes a mix of nitrogenous matter (fresh grass or leafy wastes or food peelings etc– green stuff) & cellulosic matter (straw, dry leaves, paper — brown stuff). I did this research because I was trying… Read more »

No glazes, glues or dyes used in the manufacturing of the product. The utensils are packaged into sets of 100 pieces each.

Good Afternoon… I wanted to introduce to you a new type of compostable utensil that not only looks green but is green. Most Bio-Plastic utensils that are heat tolerant over 140 F are not considered compostable due to the fact that a compost pile will never be able to reach the temperatures required to breakdown a bio-plastic fork that is heat tolerant to 200 F. In contacting multiple compost suppliers the solution has been to remove all bio-plastic from received compost and send it to the landfill to biodegrade. This is being done for two reasons. First, it is very… Read more »
Very interesting story. It caught my eye because of a similar experiment my son tried. He took 4 “biodegradable plastic” spoons from the local college cafeteria and placed them into 4 sealed clear plastic containers. I am not sure of the brand of utensils, but I believe they were of the potato starch variety. Two of the containers were left empty and dry, two were filled with water. Two were covered in dark paper (one wet and one dry) , two were left clear. All four were placed on a windowsill with daily bright sunlight. He was going to make… Read more »
Well..I can see many perspectives here.My feeling is that we should always consider the possibility of false advertising and carefully check the validity of these company’s claims.It is possible in some cases that only high heat measures will break these things down.It sucks that many recycling services don’t bother to separate the degradable items from the rest!I have always had some question as to the way these folks really do it.I used to work as a landscaper in Seattle and when we would go the processing center to dump yard waste it would be really over whelming to see how… Read more »

I’m not an expert on things-green, but I think it’s probably important that compostable is not the same as biodegradable. I see a fair amount of interchangeable usage and that may not be helpful towards having informed consumers. :)

Great post.

I got a spoon that should be biodegradable once in a ice cream shop and decided to check it out and on the manufactures website it clearly said that it would no degrade in nature but only at high heat so what use is that.

I agree with earlier poster bring you own reusable cutlery you can get great little sets at an outdoor store and i even seen them at a dollar store once.

As a distributor of biodegradable/compostable products, I find that there is extreme abuse by companies that throw around the word biodegradable. First off to even make that claim in the state of CA. the product must be BPI certified ( or some other comparable certifying entity) and meet certain ASTM standards for biodegradable/compostable capabilities. You as a consumer have the right to ask for such documentation or proof of biodegradable claims. This fall under CA. law SB1749. There are way too many companies making false claims on products that have no proof of certification. As for break down of these… Read more »
I’ve put a Starbucks hot cup in my worm bin. Months later it was sawdust inside of a plastic case. I took it out, lest it poison my worms! What I really want to know about all of this biodegradable ware is how it doesn’t leach plastics into what we are consuming. My husband works for a company that only has compostable cups, plates, utensils, etc. However, when he orders an iced latte the cup seems to start breaking down before he’s finished his drink. If it’s just breaking back down into wheat or corn then maybe that’s okay, but… Read more »
Very eye opening, but i wanted to add another perspective. It took me 2 years to get compost because my compost is in a closed composter. I am very lazy about it so I don’t give it enough water or turn it that often. Plus, I don’t shred my brown (leaves) so it will take longer to break down. So, I am not surprised that your comb did not compost in the ground. Companies should be more honest that products might be home compostable under perfect conditions. And how many of us compost perfectly? Surely not me. The biodegradable plastic… Read more »

Hi Beth-

I was reading this post on the bus on the way home yesterday and since I had to stop by Whole Foods on my way home I also checked out the “compostable” utensils while I was there. According to the box that I looked at it said that it takes 3-6 months to compost…

Thanks for the information. I haven’t bought plastic utensils in quite some time, so I wasn’t really aware that they were available. Sounds like it’s not worth it, though.

I’m trying to remember to take my utensils with me (getting better, but it’s hard to remember to grab shopping bag AND water bottle AND silverware). When I forget and have to use plastic, I bring them home, wash them, and take them to work when I have a large supply. At least that way they get used more than once.

I say carry around bamboo chopsticks. And re-use them. Of course carrying your won utensils is the answer.

See, the problem is that there is a typo here. Someone at the company make the label “biodegradable”, but is should read “biodegrading”.

Bioplastics are my pet peeve. Halifax has a composting facility… that doesn’t even accept bioplastics at all. Still, local businesses have been touting biodegradable cups, bags etc…. encouraging consumers to put them in the organics bins as if by passively dumping them to the compost facility city officials will change their policies. instead, when I spoke with the Compost facility official she informed me that the people paid to monitor the compost input weren’t paid enough to figure out the bioplastic from regular plastic. It all got tossed in the landfill anyways (with no oxygen or sunlight to degrade… if… Read more »
I sincerely hope you don’t consider this to be a scientific experiment. Do you even know how compostable bioplastics degrade? Apparently not, seeing that you expected that comb to degrade as if it were made out of apple flesh. Let alone that your composting period was *during the winter* !? Seriously? I wish you would have stuck a whole carrot in the ground along side of it, just so that you could see that not compost in those conditions as well. Oh, but wait, what about that utensil that went through the commercial composting? What I find curious is that… Read more »

Can you say GREENWASHING??

But perhaps some of the corn based utensils break down more easily than others. I have, on several occasions, had corn spoons melt on me when trying to stir hot tea or eat hot soup.

Since aluminum is a material which is actually profitable to recycle, why isn’t anyone making aluminum “silverware”? It seems like a great idea, unless I am overlooking some obvious issue.

Wow… I appreciate the real life experiments with composting these utensils. I was really excited about them when they came out. At minimum, it is a step away from using petroleum products to make utensils, reuses materials that would go into the waste steam, and at some point will likely degrade. Hopefully the makers are going to continue to work on developing a better product, and provide additional information on their packing and product information to update the facts.

But even bamboo has issues. Yes, it will break down but it must be grown (sometimes by removing natural forests) manufactured using non-renewable energy, packaged, shipped and brought home.

There is no free lunch!

Beth – a post on pros & cons of bamboo sometime?

Beth – the Taterware website explicitly states (on the FAQ webpage)
“Bio Grade 300 Cutlery is designed to degrade 100% in 60 to 90 days (in a commercial compost facility). Home composting 70 to 90 days must be fractured. Marine environment in 70 to 90 days.”

This claim on their website – and surely how they sell to restaurants ~ is concerning because it is obviously not 100% degraded or even 10% degraded… (the raised lettering is very crisp – no signs of wear).

Great post! I wondered about that, thanks for doing the research. I had decided a while ago that even if these items were compostable (which it turns out they are not), they were a waste of resources since they were meant to be used only once. I will stick to taking a spoon or fork in my lunchbag from my silverware drawer.

I have to say, one of the MOST annoying things about my office building is the green washing that has gone on the last year. Why does this office in Texas, that DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A COMPOST BIN let alone access to commercial composting have compostable plastic wear? As you have shown, this stuff doesn’t compost in the best of conditions, its sure as heck not going to compost while sitting in a plastic trash bag in a landfil.

I see that condo_blues mentioned that stuff like veggies won’t break down in her compost pile in 90 days. So, not to say I want anyone to try this out, but what would happen if some(one/thing) ate some of this “compostable” plastic? My body can break down some aspects of veggies much faster than 90 days, so maybe my body could break down the compostable plastic faster? Truthfully, I know nothing about the manufacturing process of bioplastic and where the critical differences between bio and non-bio plastics begin and end….

Dang! I got all excited when I saw a commercial for Sunchips that said their new bags are biodegradeable.

Beth,

There have been so many false dawns with biodegradable/compostable packaging and implements that we should just avoid them altogether. Eventually the companies responsible will get the message and provide fully tested/developed systems which are then checked out by enthusiasts, who are only concerned with objective truth.

What is most laughable is that high temperature composting does not work either so there is no point in recycling the material. Clueless is the word that comes to mind.

As a distributor of compostable wares – I must say that when purchasing compostable goods remember that compostable is a regulated term. Just like ‘organic’ vs. one claiming that an item is ‘natural’. The American Chemistry Council claims that plastic is biodegradable – because it will decompose EVENTUALLY. So – buyer beware. Compostable certifications to trust are from BPI and the ASTM D-6400. I do agree – reusable is the ultimate, but until we are there, these products are a good transition item. It helps create a demand and awareness and, when composted (heat, humidity and time) the loop closes… Read more »

The thing is, even in the suitably controlled composting condition, bioplastic takes too long to break down. It still doesn’t solve the litter problem and can harm animals. I can easily imagine that a sea lion pup or a Albatross chick dead after ingesting a piece with a biodegradable label.
Plus, how much of those bioplastic products really goes to the controlled composting facilities? Most of time, they are thrown into regular trash cans with non-biodegradable trash bags lining. So, what’s the point?
Bringing your own is the best we can do at this moment.

My thinking had been that bio-based plastics aren’t perfect but if they got out of a landfill at least they’d eventually biodegrade where plastics wouldn’t… Over the last year or two I have been wondering about this and trying to devise a clever experiment that could get me into a PhD program researching whether bio-based plastics degrade in a natural ocean environment better than plastic (or at all I should say). I guess someone has beat me to it! I would love to see the results or Ryan’s classmate. And a question for the non-purse-carrying readers – I do carry… Read more »

The same thoughts have been on my mind this past week as I bought and am planning to test the new SunChips compostable chip bags. These are advertised right on the bag as compostable in a hot, active home compost pile – so we’ll see. This is likely what I’ll be blogging about too, next week in Green Garbage Project land.

I am printing a copy of this blog , using my plastic computer and plastic printer with its plastic cartridges of ink, and I will insert the copies in (plastic) protector sheets to bring with me to Whole Foods and other places that provide compostable plastic utensils so I can show your plastically protected blog to the people who should Know.

That’s so disappointing! Bringing your own should of course be your first choice, but when I’ve been someplace public and seen scores of people using disposable cutlery I felt heartened when it was at least compostable. Now, knowing that it isn’t, I feel pretty discouraged.

I’m curious. Did either company say how long it took for their item to compost? Maybe in the case of the comb it will break down but takes longer than 90 days? My backyard compost won’t break down that quickly and it’s the normal veggies and shredded paper.

Yes, that’s primarily why I bailed on the project to have PLA bottles made here. I read “industrial composting facility” and realized that this would not do!

Did you try to compost the vegetable cellulose film? Mine composts nicely.

That’s aa frustrating find. Especially when we are going out of our way to find bio degradable items. I guess it’s just like bags & coffee cups, the best solution is to bring your own.
Oops, should say good post! Looking forward to seeing your next post!

That’s aa frustrating find. Especially when we are going out of our way to find bio degradable items. I guess it’s just like bags & coffee cups, the best solution is to bring your own.

I’ll just say it again: just as easy as it becomes to bring your wallet and cellphone when you leave the house, it’s just as easy to slip a fork or a spoon or a svelte pair of chopsticks in your bag, too. Practice, practice, practice.

To-go ware bamboo cutlery in my purse, the real kind at work. Not so hard :-)

wpDiscuz