Dear EarthTalk: Are there sources for disposable cups, plates, napkins and dinnerware that are more eco-friendly than others? -- Charles Phillips, New York, NY
Disposable dishware is ubiquitous in our modern “on-the-go” culture. That’s why nearly 100 billion plastic, paper and Styrofoam cups end up in American landfills and incinerators every year. Human health is the real loser when it comes to our consumption of such products, which are typically made from petroleum-based plastics, hazardous foam or chlorine-bleached virgin paper.
For the eco-conscious who enjoy entertaining large groups but don’t want to wash dishes, compostable dishware might be just the ticket. California-based Sinless Buying makes a wide range of compostable dinnerware--from dishes and cups to cafeteria-style trays and soup bowls--out of “Bagasse,” a fully biodegradable organic sugar cane fiber. Unlike their traditional plastic counterparts, once such dinnerware has served its purpose it can simply be tossed in with the backyard or garden compost. Sinless Buying also offers unbleached versions of some of its products.
Another California company, Cereplast, makes its highly regarded Nat-Ur line of compostable cups, plates, utensils, straws and even trash bags out of a plastic-like substance made from biodegradable corn byproducts, also completely biodegradable and compostable.
Meanwhile, Montana’s Treecycle, best known for its wide variety of recycled papers, now also manufactures biodegradable plates, cups, bowls and trays made from sugar cane byproducts, as well as disposable cutlery made from 100 percent compostable wheat wastes. All Treecycle dinnerware can be machine washed and re-used several times before composting.
A new entrant on the retail side of compostable dinnerware is EarthShell, which makes a wide range of compostable plates, cups, cutlery and food storage containers from fully biodegradable renewable materials like limestone and starch. The company has been supplying food service giants like SYSCO and McDonald’s for years, and now sells direct to consumers under the ReNewable Products brand name, available at Smart & Final stores in the West and at Schnucks in the Midwest.
Problems with plastic, paper and Styrofoam waste will undoubtedly continue to grow despite such positive trends and because landfills are filling up fast and taking up space that could be better put to use. But some state and local governments are taking action. Kentucky, New Jersey and California have passed bills that limit the sale of disposable plastic products, and thousands of municipalities coast to coast have increased their capacities for recycling and composting in recent years.