Every time I buy compostable tableware for a barbeque or event, I feel good about myself. I’m using a plastic that breaks down and won’t live longer than me and my descendants. I’m sending a message to the world, I’m educating my peers. At the end of the event, I throw out my compostable forks, knives, etc., thinking happily of the breakdown that will inevitably happen once the plastic hits a composting pile. But does it?
We did a recent project looking at curbside composting programs across the country and discovered that a majority of curbside programs do not accept compostable plastics. These items simply do not break down at the same rate as food waste, and often require pre-processing steps as well. If you throw the plastics into your recycling, recyclers don’t necessarily want them either; they are mainly looking for specific type of resins. Below is a map of curbside programs that DO accept compostable plastics, with some caveats on labelling and testing. Not a lot of options.
Figure 1. We looked at the top 10 cities across each state in the U.S. to identify curbside programs that accept compostable plastics. Small dots indicated limited or pilot curbside programs. Other cities not mapped that do accept compostable plastics include Berkeley, CA; Napa, CA; Palo Alto, CA.
By the way, this is all assuming you even have curbside composting in your area. If you don’t, you’re stuck with at-home composting, which won’t break down plastics (not hot enough).
There is some good news though. Pretty much everyone has access to pick-up subscription services that will actually pick up your compost for you on a regular basis. You can find a list of them here, here, or simply google your location and search for “compost.” Generally, they cost less than $20/month to haul away your compost, but you should check with them on whether they take compostable plastics.
So if you’re still holding onto your fork and wondering where it goes, the short answer to this question is “probably landfill, ” unless you’re live in one of the cities on that map. But, if you do some calling around, you can hopefully identify a subscription service that will accept your compostable fork until municipalities can catch up.