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Compostable Dinnerware

Navigation: Minimum Sustainable Recommendations | What are the Issues? | What are the Options? 

Did you know...While washing dishes does involve consuming energy (i.e., heating the water and running the dishwasher), reusing plates, cups and utensils not only conserves the resources that go into making disposables, it also saves the energy associated with transporting goods  through the supply chain and transporting spent disposable dinnerware to the landfill. (Ontario EcoSchools: Waste Minimization Guide, 2010).

Minimum Sustainable Recommendations

For compostable dinnerware, request the following:

  1. Dinnerware (e.g. cups, plates, bowls, utensils and food containers)
    • Must be Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certified
    • If dinnerware is not BPI certified, request the following:
      • Dinnerware must meet ASTM-D6400 and ASTM-D6868 standards.
      • All printing must be of water- based inks or vegetable-based inks.
      • Request for products with compostable resins produced from agricultural waste products.
    • Dinnerware must not contain fluorinated chemicals.
  2. Paper Napkins
    • Napkins must be EcoLogo or Green Seal, and/or Biodegradable Products Institute Compostable (BPI) certified.
    • If napkins are not third-party certified as above, request the following:
      • Must contain at least 40% post consumer waste.
      • Must be Process Chlorine Free (not bleached using chlorine compounds).
      • Virgin fibres used must come from forests that are certified as sustainably managed forests (FSC, SFI or CSA certified).
    • All printing must be of water-based inks or vegetable-based inks.
    • Napkins must not contain fluorinated chemicals.

NOTE: Purchasing compostable dinnerware is only recommended if your organization has an established organics/compost collection program, where materials are sent to a compost facility. For more information on establishing an organic/compost collection program in your organization, please see “Organic Waste Pick-up Services” under the waste management section of the Goods & Services tab.

Other Things to Consider

Consider purchasing permanent dinnerware for your organization where feasible (e.g. cafeterias and kitchens) instead of compostable dinnerware.


What are the issues?

Styrofoam dinnerware, plastic dinnerware and plastic lined paper dinnerware are often used for convenience.  Styrofoam is made out of polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic.  Styrene has been established as a possible human carcinogen by EPA. For those who are exposed regularly in the manufacture of products made with styrene, they are subject to a number of acute and chronic health effects including irritation of skin and eyes, fatigue and effects on kidney function.  Plastic dinnerware is also made from oil (petroleum).  Neither Styrofoam nor plastic dinnerware can be recycled and therefore end up in the trash minutes after being used.

There are a variety of disposable containers and utensils made from corn and other plant-based materials that meet the standards for compostability (e.g. BPI). These products come from renewable resources and will compost in the proper environment. Here are a few of the available options:

  • Cups, utensils and clear containers made out of polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn starch
  • Utensils made out of wheat straw
  • Plates made out of sugar cane fiber
  • Clamshell-type containers made out of limestone, cornstarch and wood fiber
  • Lined, unbleached folded paperboard boxes
  • Biodegradable garbage bags and compostable bags

However, there are products in the market that claim to be compostable and biodegradable but do not degrade properly and/or safely when sent to a commercial composting facility. These products may contaminate compost piles at the composting facility and render some of the compost unusable.

Also in some cases, compostable products (e.g. compostable dinnerware) are purchased in areas where there is no organics/compost collection program to send these items to a compost facility. As a result, these materials will likely be placed in the garbage and sent to a landfill.  Therefore, the environmental benefit associated with the use of compostable dinnerware is minimized.   


What are the options?

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) provides criteria for certification of numerous compostable/biodegradable products, including compostable dinnerware. To obtain certification, BPI tests products based on scientific methods and ensure all products meet American Standards for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards for films (ASTM-D6400) and standards for packaging which uses biodegradable coatings (ASTM -D6868). These standards ensure compostable products will biodegrade at a rate comparable to organic materials such as food scraps and yard trimmings and into compost that supports plant growth. 

For compostable dinnerware to truly reduce waste and environmental impact, materials must be sent to a compost facility. If compostable materials are placed in a commercial composter, they will readily degrade into compost. Composting significantly reduces the amount of waste sent to the landfill, supporting waste minimization efforts. Composting also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and supports the development of natural soil amendments.


Last Updated: November 2014


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