Monday, 20 June 2016

What's the Dirt on Dishware? Biodegradable VS Compostable Dishware

Author: Morganne Blais-McPherson

I love food. I love it so much that when I’m eating food, I’m still talking about food. It’s really all just food, food, food.

In fact, there’s little I love more about my job here with the McGill Sustainability Project than eating the food we get catered for our professional development workshops. My colleague Harley, a forager of gustatory satisfaction for all of us, has an unparalleled palate when it comes to finding the best catering services for our events.

On top of considering our culinary needs, Harley has made the effort to find a caterer that can provide biodegradable dishware with its deliveries. After all, we are spending over two hours at each conference preaching sustainability. As consistent individuals, it was with great comfort and pride that we threw out the plates and cups at the end of each workshop, believing that we were doing our (small, but commendable) part in considering waste management at our university.

So you can imagine the sinking feeling I had in my stomach when I discovered that biodegradable dishware doesn’t actually decompose into innocent particles of Mother Nature when it is dumped into the municipal landfill. The truth is that eco-friendly plastics aren’t so eco-friendly when they are suffocated in our mounds of trash. To add fuel to the fire, did you know that “biodegradable” doesn’t really mean much at all? I certainly did not.

Spidey senses awakened, I called up Compost Montreal to know more about this biodegradability business. It all has to do with official certification, they explain to me (quite patiently and very enthusiastically, I might add).

In a nutshell, there is a stringent series of hoops for companies to jump through to be allowed to have the word “compostable” on their products. The meaning of biodegradability, on the other hand, is up in the air.

These hoops concern the level and time frame of a product’s biodegradation. In Quebec, these standards are set by the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (you can view these standards here: For a product to be deemed “compostable”, 60-90% of the product must be broken down into pieces with a maximum size of 2 mm within 180 days of being put into the compost pile. Importantly, when done in a commercial or industrial composting facility, this decomposition process cannot leave any heavy metal traces that would be toxic to the soil.

Biodegradability, well, that’s a whole other story.  Putting the word biodegradability on a product is the equivalent of writing that you know a foreign language on your CV without providing official documentation specifying your level in reading, writing, speaking, or listening. After all, Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) “knew” Finnish and as far as I recall, this included two or three words and a slap in the face.

The product is biodegradable when it can be broken down by micro-organisms. To what extent? Don’t know. In how long? Don’t know. Will it be toxic? Again, don’t know. So what do we know? Not much.

Even more irksome is the fact that some plastics labeled as “biodegradable” can’t actually be broken down in a landfill. Oxo-degradable plastics, a type of biodegradable plastics, require light or heat exposure to be broken down. Few sunny days are seen 6 feet under trash. The main problem with these, however, is that given the small amount of oxygen deep down in a landfill, these plastics release methane when they biodegrade (if they even biodegrade at all). Methane, if you’ve been following the news recently, makes carbon dioxide look like Febreeze. Irritating, but at least it’s not the smell of a 16-year-old boy’s bedroom.

So next time you and your organization hold an event and want to be environmentally conscious, try avoiding plastics labeled as “biodegradable”. Look for compostable dishware and find a compost facility near you. In Montreal, we have Compost Montreal (, which not only sells compostable dishware but also collects compost (though you will have to check if you are in their collection zone first). If not, many universities and community gardens have composting facilities you could use.

Sustainable living is difficult, and it’s even more difficult at an institutional and commercial level. But the first step to addressing our environmental problems is to be informed of the actual impacts of what we’re doing and be critical of our current practices. The next step is finding ways to change our behaviour and that of the institutions and businesses we find ourselves in.

If you’re interested in learning more about compostable plastics, stay tuned for my next post, in which I will be looking at differences in environmental impacts of compostable and disposable plastics!

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