Is Compostable Cutlery Really Breaking Down?


There’s a growing market for disposable eating utensils. They have names like taterware or spudware -- forks and knives can be made out of potato starch instead of plastic. You might buy the tableware believing its better for the environment. But, that depends on where you toss it out. Judy Adams is shopping for cutlery at Whole Foods in Sacramento. She compares two packets of disposable forks. One is made out of recycled plastic. The other is made out of corn starch. “Compostable versus recyclable? What does that mean? Where does it say?,” asks Adams. She reads the label on the back of the compostable forks. “Our cutlery converts to soil, so you can put it into a composting pile. In a commercial composting system,” Adams reads. “ Oh! What does that mean? You have to have a commercial composting system? Oops.” Adams is confused. She says she will likely toss the forks in the trash because she assumes they will break down in a landfill. But, that may not be the case.

The product is made by Worldcentric, which is headquartered in Petaluma, CA. Marketing Director Annie Davis points out products in the company’s showroom like their new compostable Asian soup spoon.  The company manufactures everything from compostable ice cream cups to straws at production facilities in Asia. It’s a big business – worth about $30 million annually. Davis stresses that all Worldcentric products are certified by the Biodegradable Product Institute (BPI). She reads the BPI disclaimer on the back of the Worldcentric catalog: “Compostable in industrial facilities.” “And then there is small language -- check locally as these do not exist in many communities," says Davis. "Not suitable for backyard composting.” As Davis says, industrial facilities might not exist nearby. The nearest facility that does accept bio-plastics is an hour away in Vacaville, CA. There is a composting facility just down the road in Novato, Redwood Landfill and Recycling Center, but it only accept yardwaste, food scraps and paper products. Alisha McCutheon runs the composting facility. She says a lot of her customers don’t know Redwood can’t accept bio-plastics. So, they’re in the mix.

“Thin things like bio-bags break down pretty readily," says McCutheon. “Things like spudware, potato cutlery, forks and knives make out of cornstarch -- they almost don’t break down at all.” McCutheon points to a large pile of debris. It’s the leftovers -- even a nerf football -- that didn’t break down after five months of composting. She picks up a compostable spoon and dusts it off. She says all the leftovers – including the spoon -- are now on the way to the trash. And, that’s not good news for the environment. Joe Greene, a mechanical engineering professor at Chico State University and an expert on bio-plastics says, “The problem is that these actually can harm the environment more than regular petroleum based plastics if you throw them in the landfill because they generate methane gas." Methane is a toxic greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Greene says it’s important that certified compostable food service items end up at facilities with the proper capacity to break them down. “They will bio-degrade in a hot industrial compost," says Greene. “They won’t bio-degrade in your backyard necessarily.”

Greene tried tossing some compostable spoons into his backyard compost bin. But, he says the products only broke down about 30 percent after two years.He says the spoons will eventually biodegrade, but that could take a very long time. He gives the example of a bio-plastic bag he picked up in 2005. The product said “biodegradable” on it, but he watched it for the last decade -- it’s still intact. In other words, both compostable goods and composting facilities vary widely.So, before you buy eco-friendlier plastic, Greene suggests you research the product, and determine where you’ll throw it away.