Compostable Utensils Diverted to Landfill After Slow Breakdown

a supposedly biodegradable fork and spoon after 60-90 days in San Francisco's commercial composting operation, Picture from myplasticfreelife.com

CBS San Francisco reports here that so called compostable utensils are  often filtered out from other compost materials and are instead being diverted to landfill. Furthermore, it is noted that commercial composters would rather not have to deal with them in the first place.

In addition to leaving the environmental benefits of compostable utensils diminished, arguably their availability may actually cause additional waste, since consumers may choose them more often, believing they have no adverse environmental impact.

Unfortunately then, despite consumer attempts to make better choices, their efforts in this case seem to be providing no actual benefit at all – so what’s going on?

First, some definitions. According to Worldcentric, compostable plastics are those made from various renewable raw materials such as corn, potato, or tapioca starches,  as well as cellulose, soy protein, and lactic acid. But they may also be derived from petroleum sources, or as a product of microbial fermentation. To qualify as compostable, most international standards require items to achieve 60% bio-degradation within 180 days. The Biodegradable Products Institute, which appears to be an important certifying body in the industry, grants approval of products that meet  ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868 standards – these are scientifically developed and require quick and safe disintegration within professionally managed composting facilities.

The picture at the top of this page, from myplasticfreelife.com, shows a supposedly biodegradable fork and spoon after 60 – 90 days in San Francisco’s commercial composting operation. This is less than the allotted time for 60% degradation to occur, but the picture suggests that decomposition has yet to even begin. The point of the picture is, of course, to suggest that compostable items are not rendering as advertised. Utensils are inherently problematic.  They are thick and heat resistant (in order to perform the intended task of cutting and shoveling food), they must be designed tough to do the job, and their thickness makes them harder to break down. But what if commercial composting operations are not providing the appropriate environment for a sufficient amount of time – that ASTM standards presumably model –  in order for the composting process to work properly?

If that is the case, the commercial composting facilities may be at fault. On the other hand, perhaps the certifying standards for compostability are unrealistic, whereby in the commercial (real) world, the right environments are either difficult to create or don’t actually do the job.

That’s not the only problem.  Taterware, the identified manufacturer of the items in the picture, states that its utensils are made from GMO free potato sources. But while the material used is purportedly a green one,  Taterware itself doesn’t claim all it’s products are compostable. They do make an ASTM D6400 compliant line, but these are visually almost indistinguishable from their non biodegradable varieties. As such,  it’s easy to see why commercial composters may be compelled to remove all utensils from the compost stream, because even when they are made from the same material, it’s no guarantee they are equally designed to break down. This identifies the other key problem, that  too many non-biodegradable  items are mis-sorted by consumers which commercial composters cannot recognize.

So, what’s the solution? If the predominant cause is that items are not breaking down as designed, then perhaps different certification standards are required, or perhaps commercial composting facilities need to operate differently and more consistently. However, if it’s a case of non-compostable items being mixed in, then maybe the industry should look for ways to make certified compostable products more easily recognizable for both consumers and commercial composters. But perhaps even better, the best antidote to the problem is right at the front end; simply avoiding single-use products in the first place.

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.