Are Compostable To-Go Containers Really Better Than Plastic?

Experts say we should be focusing on reusable items instead

Sign above compost bin in restaurant in Dublin, California, stating that all silverware and other serving ware is made from compostable materials, July 30, 2019. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Sign above compost bin in restaurant in Dublin, California, stating that all silverware and other serving ware is made from compostable materials, July 30, 2019. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
By Bonnie Stiernberg / January 17, 2020 6:30 am

As more and more restaurants look to sustainable alternatives to plastic to-go containers, cups and cutlery, many have embraced compostable alternatives made from plants like corn, sugarcane and bamboo. But as a new piece by Civil Eats notes, those compostable products aren’t always that much better for the environment than the single-use plastic they’re seeking to avoid.

“Some researchers and recyclers caution that an over-reliance on compostable tableware and packaging may not be the solution it’s cracked up to be,” the article reads. “In life cycle assessments, it turns out, compostables don’t necessarily outshine plastics when it comes to environmental benefits. And an increase in compostables in the waste stream could, in fact, bungle up the composting process, create more trash, and continue consumers’ addiction to single-use items, detracting from the most environmentally beneficial practices: reducing and reusing.”

“It’s nice to be able to make people feel good about throwing something away, but we’re really not changing their behavior or patterns,” Jack Hoeck, vice president of environmental services at Rexius, a Eugene, Oregon-based recycling plant that no longer accepts compostable products, told the site. “From a climate change perspective, it would be better to reduce the amount we’re generating.”

The way to do that, of course, is to transition away from single-use items — whether they’re compostable or not — and embrace reusable options instead, as a report issued by Greenpeace advised back in October.

“To solve the plastic pollution crisis, companies need to rethink how products are delivered to consumers and invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems,” it said.

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