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Compostable Utensils Diverted to Landfill After Slow Breakdown

| Monday May 16th, 2011 | 8 Comments

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.


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Categorized: Eco Products|

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  • Dix Henneke

    Another important point that needs to be added to this conversation is the lack of commercial composting facilities and programs. I am seeing more establishments here in Orange County using “compostable” EarthChoice drinking cups from Cedar Grove Packaging. But unless and until there are commercial compost facilities available I suppose these end up in our landfills, or contaminating conventional plastic recycling batches.

  • peterjc

    Since these utensils comprise an extremely minor portion of landfill detritus and will eventually decompose anyway -providing additional methane gas that can mined for energy- I don’t see a problem in banning them from composting operations.

    • Claire F

      Sadly they will probably not decompose in regular landfill. They are covered in plastic so as not to let smells into the environment. There is no air or light to allow composting microorganisms to live. They’ve opened up some of the landfills and 10 years later you can still recognize a head of lettuce.

      I try to carry a set of plastic flatware in my purse so I don’t need to take them. I refuse the flatware, napkins, condiment pouches when I do takeout.

  • http://www.earth-to-go.com Tom Rice

    Biodegradable Food Service is the manufacturer of TaterWare. It recently released its new version of ASTM D6400-compostable cutlery, which is tinted green for easy identification as such. Where suitable industrial compost facilities are unavailable, its standard TaterWare cutlery is a potato-starch-based alternative best suited for landfill disposal.

    • David Hughes

      The problem we had with Taterware in Vermont is they mislead us all by claiming their PSM (plant starch material) cutlery was truly compostable. Perhaps it once was but all of a sudden it began showing up in sifters at our commercial composting facility. PSM cutlery is a greenwash in its highest form. It contains polypropylene. You’d be better off moving up to the newer CPLA high heat resistant comostable cutlery which is certified by BPI & Cedar Grove.

  • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

    It’s too bad that a couple cutlery companies like this who are blatantly misleading customers give the whole industry/product category a black eye in the minds of consumers. I’ll repost this on my blog.

  • http://www.ecomotown.com Abby

    Is this article claiming that the utensils certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute is not breaking down in adequate time in industrial composting facilities, or are you refering to other “compostable” utensils that have plastic fillers?

    • Phil Covington

      The article was mainly to point out that, for whatever reason, single use utensils are being diverted from composting operations to landfill, as often they are not biodegrading. In researching the problem, I came across claims that compostable utensils were not breaking down as advertised, but I also found that commercial composting facilities might not always process them for the 180 days that appears to be what they require under the certification process. Often they are exposed to composting for 60 to 90 days. Finally, I found that even though plant based materials are often used for these utensils, that does not always mean they are certified compostable, so I suggested that consumers may be mistaking compostable items with non-compostable ones. So, I really found the cause of the problem to be inconclusive, and am not therefore attempting to focus attention on one culprit. But the consequences are single use utensils are possibly being diverted to landfill, whether they biodegrade or not.