Since we started using single-use plastic, it has become a major crisis globally. Now, more and more people are looking for ways to live a zero-waste life. Take-out restaurants and grocery stores have also searched for alternatives to the common plastic utensils and plastic bags. Some of these options, such as compostable cutlery, are being marked as compostable, but are they truly compostable? Let’s find out.
Is the Cutlery Labeled as Compostable Non-Plastic?
No, it’s not.
Many biodegradable and compostable plastics are made from polymers (starch and cellulose) that are naturally occurring. This is where the confusion started leading to biodegradable or compostable plastics misinterpreted as ‘non-plastic packaging.’
Even though a natural polymer is being used, the cutlery is still made by people inside a laboratory by means of chemical reactions similar to those of synthetic polymers. Due to this, the ‘compostable or biodegradable’ materials they market are still plastic, essentially. That is, if it feels and looks like plastic, then it is plastic.
If a Cutlery Set Is ‘Certified’ Compostable, Is It Really?
The answer is partly yes and partly no. In most cases, certified compostable cutlery or product means that it has passed a certain compost test—known as the Compostable Product Test.
This test specifies that in order to be compostable, the material must be composted within a short period of time. The time frame for industrial composting is within 84 days for product fragmentation (breaking into tiny pieces) and 180 days for complete mineralisation within a composting facility.
Therefore, yes, certified compostable products do compost technically. However, most of these products are designed only to be composed in facilities that are commercial-grade, and the process often takes 6-9 months to happen. If you look closely at certified compostable cutlery and products, they have this tiny disclaimer:
‘Check locally as a commercial composting facility does not exist in many communities—Not suitable for backyard composting.’
What happens then to the majority of compostable cutlery?
The composting process is very specific which does not take place in landfills, even in water. Unless you throw away your compostable cutlery—segregated from regular trash and your city is one of the few that has a commercial composting system for food waste—it will never compost. Not unless it is grain-based.
Moreover, if the cutlery is not made from natural food products that dissolve in water, it will end up in your water channels, and it will never break down at all.
Can You Recycle Cutlery That is Labeled as Compostable or Biodegradable?
No, you can’t recycle them because they may not be sufficiently durable. You will potentially screw up the waste stream if you put them into recycling. Also, when the recycling process starts at the sorting facility and they find non-recyclable items like compostable cutlery, they’ll send them to the landfill instead of sorting them out.
What Are The Other Negative Results Apart From Creating More Waste?
It takes a whole lot of resources to make compostable or biodegradable cutlery or any piece of tableware. The majority of compostable cutlery is made from corn—a yearly crop that usually grows in a monocropping culture system. It needs to be properly planted and watered with tilled soil.
On the other hand, the corn used to create bioplastics is not organic. It even has tons of pesticides. Valuable and profitable land was used to make something that just gets discarded.
The irony about compostable cutlery is that it often comes wrapped in plastic that’s not compostable or biodegradable. Therefore, there are tons of costs to consider, including the fact that compostable cutlery is more pricey than reusable items.
With this in mind, are recyclable plastics then a better alternative to compostable ones?
Oftentimes, it depends on how the bioplastic or plastic is disposed of and the situation. From an environmental perspective, recycling cutlery is actually a better option than using compostable ones, unless the items will be composted in an industrial facility.
Addressing the Plastic Issue
From small acts to big projects, there are many ways in which we can help our environment.
For instance, if you’re hosting a large event, you can choose better options than using single-use cutlery. Instead of getting disposable bowls and plates, try using those made of fast-growing and soft bamboo or trees—the main organic materials that you can truly compost. An eco-friendly cutlery set is a better option than those single-use ones! A cutlery set that is made out of organic materials is evidently compostable.
If you are to purchase plates and cups for events, then choose unbleached cardboard with no wax linings or plastic. In this way, you can recycle or compost these items. With just a bit of research, you can go for greater alternatives than using disposable plastics.
You can also place a zero-waste plan for events like weddings or parties by searching for some tips and tricks. You can look for a company that supplies reusable cutlery, delivers them and even collects them afterwards. If you opt to hire a caterer, make sure the catering service uses actual cutlery sets.
Any type of plastic material doesn’t break down in the ground or the seawater if it gets loose in the environment. It will only photodegrade into tiny and tiny pieces which eventually get swallowed by animals. The best way to combat this is to reduce plastic use or utilise alternatives—make use of reusables.