Self-catering your own wedding (or even a potluck wedding) can leave you wondering what the heck you’re going to do about dishes. Trust me, I know from experience! There are many options to choose from: rent or buy durable dishes and silverware, purchase plastic or try to do the eco thing and use “compostable” dishes and flatware. Each of these has its pros and cons:

  • Durable: Clearly the best option, but it can be expensive if you rent. If you purchase, they can still be expensive and you’re stuck doing the washing (ahem, borrow!).
  • Plastic: Simply put, can we say tacky? Yes, I’ve seen weddings with plastic utensils, plates and cups and I have to say I, personally, am not a fan. However, it’s your wedding so you can do what you want. Bear in mind how much waste you’re creating unless you’re diligent in collecting, rinsing and personally taking these items to a recycling depot as they cannot be recycled at the curb in Portland.
  • “Compostable”: Not many people realize that “compostable” serving ware really isn’t all that compostable. You may have good intentions, but there are things about compostable dishes and flatware you are not aware of.

compostable dishes

What’s the deal, really, with compostables?

Because “compostables” are so vague and often misunderstood, I thought it would be good to share some resources to help make your decision a little easier. Is it good? Bad? Does it work? Well, hopefully this article will help. Written by the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Office, I hope it will provide as much insight for you as it did me. You can view a .pdf of the entire article here. New containers that look like conventional plastics but are labeled “biodegradable,” “compostable” or “Polylactic Acid (PLA)” have been appearing in delis, grocery stores, and fast food restaurants. As well-meaning businesses work to green their practices, many are turning to these new (usually corn-based) products, called “bioplastics.” Other “compostable” containers on the market include those manufactured with wheat, Bagasse (the fiber that remains after sugar cane is processed for its juice), switchgrass and others. Unfortunately, “compostable” containers simply are not the answer for many reasons:

  • Accidentally mixing materials made from PLA into your recycle bin or yard debris bin causes problems for conventional plastics and yard debris/compost processors (they contaminate plastics recycling and don’t break down as they should at commercial compost facilities).
  • Compostable containers do not break down in home composting systems and may not be suitable for commercial composting facilities (they are NOT accepted in the new curbside composting program in Portland).  Besides, will you really have enough room in your home compost for all the compostable dishes used?  Probably not.

Are “compostables” better for the environment than petroleum-based plastics?

Consider the following issues:

  • Landfill decomposition increases greenhouse gas emissions. When biodegradable materials break down in a landfill, they create methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • Consumers have limited ability to compost bioplastic containers. Your home compost does not reach the temperatures necessary to break down bioplastic. In order for most compostables to decompose, they must be sent to a commercial composting facility. The facility handling Portland’s residential compost is not currently accepting compostable containers such as those made with PLA, sugarcane, etc.
  • Bioplastics may not decompose. Not all bioplastic products have been tested for commercial composting. Some of the bioplastics that have been tested were found to successfully decompose in a commercial compost facility; others did not decompose at all.
  • Bioplastics require fossil fuels for production. Corn-based plastics will not remove the need for petroleum to make the container. Corn production requires soil management machinery, fertilizers and pesticides, all of which are petroleum intensive. Converting the corn to bioplastics often uses fossil fuels.
  • Fertile land is used for packaging. Six billion people depend on 11 percent of the earth’s land surface to produce food. Shifting land use to produce packaging could further increase the world’s hunger problems.

When you’re thinking about your wedding, keep all of these points in mind. If you truly want an eco-friendly wedding, opt for durable dishes. Even with water, soap and energy needed to wash, durable service ware is the most sustainable choice. {image source: green wedding alliance}

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