Compostable (sometimes called biodegradable) cups, plates, and utensils are emerging on the market as an alternative to disposable plastic items. Most are made from corn, sugarcane, or other plant material. You see them at events; restaurants, coffee shops and co-ops are offering compostable to-go containers; and you can even buy them in stores for use at picnics and parties.
One benefit of compostable products is that they replace non-recyclable plastic products made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Compostable products are primarily made from food crops, which are renewable. Yet, because of chemically intensive farming practices used to grow many of these food crops, the sustainability of their production is still a concern.
The true environmental benefit of compostable products is only realized when they actually get composted. If they are not composted, they will be burned or buried with the rest of our trash, creating harmful emissions, and contributing to climate change. The catch-compostable products must be composted with food scraps in a controlled, commercial scale composting facility to completely biodegrade. Compostable dishware products will not break down in your backyard bin. Currently in Minnesota, commercial-scale compost facilities are few and far between. They often do not accept material from individuals, households, or smaller events unless it is delivered in large dumpster-sized quantities.
So what you can do?
Reusable cups, plates, and cutlery are certainly the best choice for the environment (yes, even when you have to use water resources to wash them). If you don’t have enough reusable real dishware, consider an initial investment in purchasing dishes at a reuse store or used restaurant supply store, or renting them.
When you use compostable dishware, be sure it is truly compostable and BPI certified (see Greenwashing article in this section).
Be sure you can compost them. If you have curbside composting available in your city, compost them! If you can’t compost them, know that there is some benefit in replacing petroleum disposable ware, but reusables are still a better choice.
St. Paul, MN