How environmentally friendly are plastic cutlery alternatives?

We are all aware that plastic, a popular and versatile product in today's world, is a major source of pollution and has no place in nature. With this knowledge, there has been significant public pressure on consumers and businesses to seek out environmentally friendly plastic alternatives, such as compostable plastic and bioplastics. While both are promoted as sustainable alternatives, the reality is that they are not.

The 3 most commonly used alternatives to plastic are:

  • Biodegradable Plastics
  • Bioplastics
  • Recycled Plastics

Biodegradable plastics, also known as photodegradable or oxydegradable plastics, are those that can be decomposed by living organisms, most commonly bacteria. Petrochemical plastics are used to make biodegradable plastics, which typically degrade into harmful substances that are unsuitable for composting. These can also leave a toxic residue behind.

Plastic made from recycled plastic materials is referred to as recycled plastic. In other words, these are products that are repurposed to create something new. While this is a great way to keep a product out of the landfill, the collection and recycling process still consumes lots of resources.

Bioplastics are synthetic materials derived from natural sources such as corn starch and sugar cane. PLAs made from polylactic acid, also known as polylactide, are now widely used in the production of food containers. While bioplastics are sometimes compostable, they frequently require high temperatures on an industrial scale and thus will not degrade in conventional landfills.

  • When biodegradable plastics decompose, they emit methane gas, which contributes to the global warming problem.
  • Some PLA products are made from genetically modified corn, which is harmful to the environment. This corn is also grown on land that could be used to grow food for the rest of the world rather than plastic.
  • Many biodegradable and bioplastics require high temperatures or UV light to decompose, which takes many years and frequently leaves toxic residue and micro-plastics behind.
  • Growing crops for bioplastics consumes natural resources such as water and fuel, and results in greenhouse gas emissions as well as water pollution from fertilizer run-off.
  • PLAs are difficult to recycle and cannot be mixed with true plastics in a household recycling bin.
  • There is no truly compostable bioplastic or biodegradable plastic.

Edible cutlery
A few businesses have developed edible disposable cutlery, which is a great idea for specialty catering. Given the massive amount required to supply the daily needs of the food service industry, they would not be a viable solution to replace plastic disposable cutlery because they have the same drawbacks as PLAs: 1. they use food that could help reduce world hunger and 2. unless made from truly organic ingredients, their environmental impact produces more harm than good.

Is There a Better Compostable Alternative?

Fortunately, bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are not your only options for replacing plastic. Wood is a far superior material to bioplastics. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Wooden utensils are 100% renewable because they are made from fast-growing trees like birch. And it doesn't take as long as you might think to replenish the supply; some birch tree strains mature in as little as 12 years. It is a common misconception that wood products are harmful to tree populations. Wood is one of the most environmentally friendly materials available. It absorbs CO2 as it grows and provides a habitat for wildlife. It is critical, however, to use only raw materials sourced from responsibly managed forests, as ECOWOOD does. 
  • Wooden cutlery is also entirely natural. There are no chemicals used in the manufacturing process, so there is no chemical impact on the environment.
  • Wooden utensils are completely compostable and decompose in approximately 90 days. More importantly, they can be thrown into a compost bin or pile at home or in the backyard. They do not require an industrial facility or a special process to degrade properly, as PLA utensils do.
  • Wood cutlery, when composted at home, helps to create nutrient-rich soil that can be used to fertilize and grow other plants. You'll never have to be concerned about plastic bits in your compost again.

Wood utensils are the answer
Just because bioplastic utensils are advertised (and even certified!) as compostable does not mean that they have no environmental impact. It is clear that the impact has been significant. However, there are far fewer environmental consequences associated with wood utensils than with bioplastic utensils throughout their entire life cycle.

Until other products are developed, the only sustainable alternative to plastic disposables is wood cutlery.