The Dirt on Compostable Dinnerware by Gia Machlin, May 02 2011, 1 Comment

You would think that it's a no brainer to replace plastic, styrofoam and paper disposable dinnerware with bagasse or another compostable kind - the latter doesn't sit in a landfill forever, right? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. I'm not trying to talk you out of replacing your plastic/styrofoam/paper plates with the compostable kind. There are still many environmental and health benefits to using these products. But I think it's important to understand how it all works.

The first part of this is examining the materials used and the manufacturing process. Most compostable goods are made of renewable resources: sugar cane fiber, bamboo, wheat grass, and palm leaves. Isn't paper a renewable resource, you may ask? Well technically, yes, but trees take years to grow and replace, and the process is pretty energy intensive. On the other hand, gathering fallen palm leaves or using sugar cane fiber, which is a by product of sugar production, is not so resource intensive. Also, many disposable goods are made of plastic and styrofoam and these materials can leach toxins. Do you want your kids eating off of styrofoam trays and ingesting all the toxins they give off? Of course not.

The more complicated and often misunderstood part of this is the disposal of these products. Compostable goods are meant to be composted, not sent to a landfill. When food scraps and biodegradable garbage go to a landfill, one of two things will happen, and they're both not good: 1) the conditions in the landfill are such that very little biodegradation will occur at all (you may have heard of the discovery of 40 year old hot dogs in landfills) or 2) biodegradation occurs, but because of the lack of exposure to oxygen, the process creates methane gas - a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This process is called anaerobic biodegradation. There are some landfills that capture this methane gas and produce energy from it (which is very cool) - but not all do.

So what happens if you compost the stuff? Well if you use a home composter or a composting service, most likely it will be done aerobically (with the aid of oxygen). The gas released in this process is carbon dioxide, not methane, which is one positive result. But what's more important is that you will be creating much needed nutrient rich soil to return to the earth. And when compost is used in place of raw manure for fertilizer, it reduces groundwater pollution. The great thing is that with the advances in composting technology and all the great services available, you don't even have to deal with smell, worms and all the other yucky things associated with composting.

So, go ahead and switch to compostable goods and please try to compost them. If the composting part is not an option right now, I still say these products are better than plastic, styrofoam and paper. The materials and manufacturing process are more environmentally sound, less toxic, and if they happen to end up in a landfill that does capture methane gas, then they will be helping to produce new energy!