In the warmer months, we all enjoy having barbecues and picnics. We also try to be aware of our habits and make these events greener. The problem is, while we don’t want to carry around and wash all our dishes and cutlery, we also don’t want to have to leave with a garbage bag full of plastic. There is a solution for this: biodegradable plates, bowls, cups, and cutlery.
Unlike traditional paper plates and plastic cups, which are made from petroleum, these are made from non-toxic, organic materials that decompose in home compost bins or commercial composting facilities. They cost a little more than regular paper dishes and may not be available in your local grocery store, but if the demand for these dishes continues to increase, things may change. Most biodegradable and compostable tableware are made from either sugarcane or cornstarch. Sugarcane based items are made from the fibrous residue, called bagasse. It is left over and normally just thrown away after sugarcane has been crushed and the sugar has been extracted. The bagasse is then processed and mixed with recycled paper and pressed into molds to form dishes. The final product is strong, microwavable, freezer safe, oil resistant, and capable of handling hot or cold foods and beverages. Bagasse is eco-friendly because it is a renewable resource that does not need to be disposed of in a landfill or by burning. According to manufacturers, items made from bagasse decompose in home composting bins in about 3 months and, in commercial composting facilities in 30–45 days.
Cornstarch based dishes are actually made from Polylactide (PLA), which is made from lactic acid produced through corn fermentation. Corn plastic products look and feel like regular plastic, but they are 100% biodegradable and compostable. Since corn is a renewable resource, corn plastics are more sustainable than regular plastic and PLA is made from lower-grade corn that is not usually eaten by people. Dishes made from cornstarch can take higher temperatures than those made with bagasse. Corn-based plastics are often used to produce plastic plates, cups for cold drinks, as well as cutlery. The plates and cups can be composted at home in 180 days, but cutlery must be composted in commercial composting facilities where temperatures are higher than home composting environments. One drawback to using corn-based dishes is that some corn residue can be absorbed in food and trigger allergic reactions in people allergic to corn.
There are also items that may be made from potato, wheat, or tapioca starch. There are more options coming to stores.