The food-service industry increasingly uses biodegradable food containers, such as plates, bowls, cutlery, cups and lids, for "to-go" orders (see References 4). Environmentally conscientious consumers can purchase similar items for home use, along with food-storage and trash bags, at many retailers (see References 6). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, composting biodegradable food containers counts as effective recycling (see References 5). However, when you throw these products in the landfill-bound trash, you negate any environmental advantage over their non-biodegradable equivalents (see References 1).
Basic Landfill Science
Composting requires microorganisms that thrive in damp, oxygen-rich conditions. Landfills, on the other hand, are designed to prevent ideal conditions for the decomposition of biodegradable materials (see References 2). Increased biodegration in landfills is actually undesirable, as it results in the greater likelihood of groundwater pollution, methane gas production and unstable sub-soil conditions (see References 1).
Types of Compostable Food Containers
Not all compostable food containers are created equally. Some "biologically based" containers are made from a combination of renewable feedstock and petroleum. While these products can degrade over time, they do not necessarily do so through natural processes, and they often leave behind toxic residues. To ensure you are buying truly compostable products, look for the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) "Compostable" label, which ensures the product has met the standards of the ASTM International, formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials, for compostable containers (see References 2, page 3). These standards confirm that the product will safely and naturally compost just like yard trimmings and food scraps.
BPI-Certified Container Contents
BPI-certified containers are made with a wide variety of plant-based materials, including sugarcane fibers, bulrush fibers, wheat fibers, palm fibers, corn, bamboo and fallen leaves. Pressure and steam create multiple layers for strength and durability (see References 4). Compostable containers look and feel much like their noncompostable counterparts. Some feel more dense and rough to the touch. They may also be dull and natural in color, as opposed to glossy and bleached white.
How to Compost Containers
BPI-certified compostable containers can be composted in municipal and commercial composting facilities or properly maintained home compost piles. Commercial composting programs are available through many municipal waste-management and community "greening" programs. To ensure fast and efficient home composting, maintain a 1-to-1 ratio of carbon and nitrogen materials, keep the pile damp but not wet, and turn the compost frequently to add oxygen. (See References 3)
- Biodegradable Products Institute: The Myths of Biodegradation
- "The Truth About Biodegradables"; Emma Seigel
- Environmental Protection Agency: Create Your Own Compost Pile
- Biodegradable Products Institute: Certified Compostable Foodservice Items
- Environmental Protection Agency: Reducing and Recycling
- Biodegradable Products Institute: Certified Compostable Bags
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Beth Berry has been writing since 1995 about sustainable farming, fiber arts and parenting. She brings expertise in organic gardening, landscape design and domestic arts to her writing. Berry holds a Bachelor of Science in environmental science from Abilene Christian University and is a master seamstress.