For years, disposable utensils were made primarily from plastic. However, utensils made from materials marketed as eco-friendly have recently become more widely available. We reviewed seven sets of disposable utensil sets in a variety of materials to find out which set is best. We named one winner made from a compostable material and another made from plastic. We were left with two more questions: How should we dispose of each of these? And is the compostable set in fact more eco-friendly than the plastic one?
Let’s start by talking about plastic utensils. Despite the huge numbers of plastic utensils produced, purchased, and disposed of each year, only some recycling facilities accept them (check to see if your city does). The reasons for the limitations are many, including that their small size and odd shape make them incompatible with the machinery at commercial recycling facilities. Plus, plastic utensils are made from different types of plastic, so sorting them for recycling can be very time-consuming. Since many plastic utensils can’t be recycled, billions of plastic forks, spoons, and knives annually end up in landfills where, according to a National Geographic report by Tik Root, they can take up to 1,000 years to break down.
In an effort to reduce the number of plastic utensils that end up in landfills, a few companies now produce utensils made from compostable materials such as bamboo, polylactic acid (PLA), and crystallized polylactic acid (CPLA). You can compost bamboo utensils at home, but it will take longer than if they were composted at a commercial facility. Conversely, utensils made from PLA and CPLA can’t be composted at home and need to be commercially composted because those materials require higher, more consistent temperatures to help them break down. Commercial composting facilities may introduce microorganisms to the mix to speed up the process. If your city has a commercial composting program, you can dispose of your compostable utensils there. If your city doesn’t have one, you can subscribe to a composting service. This site has a list of options in the United States, sorted by location.
The environmental impact of adding compostable utensils to your trash (and eventually a landfill) as opposed to composting them is complicated. When deposited in a landfill, compostable utensils will break down faster than plastic utensils only if there’s oxygen available (a rare occurrence). In landfills where there’s little to no oxygen available, compostable utensils can take hundreds of years to break down. However, some still argue that there are benefits to using utensils made from renewable resources instead of petroleum, which is often used to make plastic. When we were researching disposable cups, we spoke with an expert who summarized the benefits of compostable cups this way: “It’s only good for the environment if it’s going into a composting system.”
Before you consider buying disposable utensils, we recommend doing a bit of quick research about composting systems available in your area first. If you have access to a commercial composting facility, compostable utensils are a great choice. Our favorite set is Ecovita 100% Compostable Forks Spoons Knives Cutlery Combo 380 Set ($0.14 per utensil). If you don’t have access to commercial composting, check to see if your town or city recycles plastic utensils. Our top plastic utensil set is The Diamond Entertaining 96 Combo ($0.18 per utensil).