Are Compostable utensils really Compostable?

Are Compostable utensils really Compostable?

Since the world has woken up to the single use plastic crisis out there, and more and more people are looking to lead a zero waste life, grocery stores and take out cafeterias  are carrying more and more alternatives to the common plastic fork. Many of these new options are labeled by their manufacturer as compostable and biodegradable. But are they really? 

Are all utensils labeled compostable really compostable and biodegradable?

The simple answer is NO!

Compostable and many biodegradable plastics are made from naturally occurring polymers such as starch or cellulose. It is at this point confusion is created and compostable/biodegradable plastics misrepresented as "not plastic”.

Although a natural polymer is used (e.g. derived from a crop, like corn), the utensils are still man-made in a laboratory via a chemical reaction in the same way as synthetic polymers. As a result the ‘compostable or biodegradable’ materials they are being marketed as are still, essentially, plastics.  In other words: if it looks like and feels like plastic, it is plastic.

So here’s the kicker. There is a way to compost these types of utensils - but it’s not in your back yard heap at home. It’s using a commercial grade composting facility. At these facilities, matter is broken down into very small pieces, then heated at incredibly high temperatures to allow them to biodegrade. It’s a very specific process and one we do not have access to at home. In addition, according to a recent study and analysis by  Biocycle, the total confirmed number of full-scale food waste composting facilities in the U.S. is only 185. So, statistically speaking, you probably do not live near one.

If products are “certified” compostable are they really compostable?

Yes and no.  

Certified compostable products,  in many cases, means they have passed a specific compost test (commonly known as the ASTM D6400 – Compostable Product Test).

This test stipulates that to be compostable, matter must compost within a “reasonably short period of time”. That length - for industrial composting - is 84 days for fragmentation of the product (breaking it into tiny pieces), and 180 days for complete mineralization in a properly managed composting facility.

So, yes, certified compostable products technically do biodegrade, but most are designed only to be composed in commercial grade facilities, and it can take 6- 9  months to occur.

Indeed, if you look at these certified compostable items they often have this disclaimer in very small writing :

“Check locally as a commercial composting facility does not exist in many communities - Not suitable for backyard composting.”

Several third party tests have been made on those so called compostable products in backyard composts, and after 2 years, the majority of the utensils were still there.

What Happens to Most Compostable Utensils?

Composting is a very specific process which does not occur in landfills. It also does not occur in water. As we mentioned, there are currently only 185 full-scale food waste comparing facilities in the US, compared to 3,092 active landfill dumps.

So, unless when you throw out your “compostable” utensils they are separated from regular garbage and your specific city is one of the few 5% that has a commercial food waste composting system, your utensils will not compost. Unless, that is, they are simple grain-based utensils such as TwentyFifty ! ) 

Furthermore, unless it is a natural food based product that dissolves in water, if it ends up in our waterways, it probably will not break down at all.

TwentyFifty vs other 'compostables'

(The spoon on the left is a current 'compostable' spoon on the market. The spoon - or what's left of it - on the right is TwentyFifty. Both have been in water for 60 days).

This is why if you really want compostable or biodegradable you want to go to Our forks and spoons are made only out of simple, wholesome ingredients: wheat flour, soy flour, corn flour, and water. Because of this, they break down in 30 days or less even in your backyard compost - and even biodegrade in water over time.

To solve our plastic pollution we don’t need a few people living a zero waste life perfectly. We need a whole lot of people doing it imperfectly. TwentyFifty is a simple, effective and easy way to start.