Are Paper Plates Compostable? Recyclable?

Can Paper Plates Be Composted?

Yes, sorting our trash is confusing. Is it that paper plate compostable? Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable? Should we just throw it in the trash, off to the landfill?

Here are a few pointers, to help you “sort out” these reuse questions when looking for eco-friendly plates and cups.

It’s important to note that, although these rules generally apply, your local compost and recycling service provider is the best source of information on what can be composted or recycled and what cannot, in their facilities. Since many people are too busy to reach out to their service providers, these guidelines should give you a good idea of what’s recyclable and/or compostable.

And, as they say, “if in doubt, throw it out”.

Are paper plates biodegradable?

This is a bit of an aside, but worthwhile talking about…

People often ask whether paper plates are biodegradable, thinking that means “eco friendly”. The question probably relates to whether or not paper plates can safely be thrown in the trash, without leaching chemicals into the environment.

Well, “biodegradable” actually means any material that can be broken down by microorganisms (like fungi, bacteria, and algae) into natural elements and taken back up into the natural environment. In some cases, it’s really just a marketing claim, like “natural” , which doesn’t mean anything. Technically, even plastic will biodegrade, given 500 years!

Note that the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” are not the same thing. All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable. Biodegradable materials will break down into natural elements, without human intervention. Compostable materials can be converted into a nutrient-rich soil, when properly processed in either a residential (back yard) composting pile or a commercial composting facility.

The net here is that, although biodegradable materials are more earth-friendly than non-biodegradables, we should focus on the compostable angle – can the material be turned into useful, eco-friendly material.

So, let’s rephrase the question from “are paper plates biodegradable” (can they be safely disposed of) to the much more useful, “are paper plates compostable” (can they be put to good use again).

Oh, and your “direct” answer is: paper plates are biodegradable sometimes.

First things first – is that paper plate plastic-coated?

The first factor to consider when figuring out whether or not your paper plates are compostable (or recyclable) is whether they have a plastic coating.

Plastic coatings keep moisture out – or in – depending on the product.  Milk cartons and juice cartons are plastic coated to keep their liquid contents inside. Frozen food boxes are coated to keep the moisture in the freezer from damaging the boxes and possibly the food inside. Coffee cups and disposable plates and bowls are often plastic coated (or “polycoated”) to keep their contents from leaking all over us. (Wax doesn’t work so well for hot foods and drinks, so there are not many alternatives.)

Paper plates often have a plastic coating, to prevent them from getting soggy and possibly collapsing when they’re holding wet foods. If your plates have this coating, they’ll hold up well to very wet foods and liquids.

Unfortunately, plastic-coated plates can’t be composted or recycled. So, they must go in the trash bin instead of the compost or recycling bin. (There are exciting new exceptions though – read on!)

Are waxed paper plates compostable?

Wax-coated plates can be composted (but not recycled). They can be composted, because wax breaks down just fine in the composting process. What’s confusing to many people is that, although wax-coated plates are suitable for compost, they’re not suitable for recycling. This is because the wax comes off during the paper pulping process, and cannot be easily separated from the paper pulp.

You can easily identify a waxed plate by dragging a finger nail across it. If wax comes off, it’s wax (and not plastic) coated, so it’s suitable for the compost bin.

Are uncoated paper plates compostable?

You can still buy completely uncoated paper plates – those thin, generic, non-shiny, very inexpensive plates (the original paper plates). You’ll need paper plate holders, to keep them from wilting, and dumping their contents on the ground.

Non-coated paper plates generally can be composted. Even dirty, food-laden paper plates can go in the compost bin, as long as they’re not plastic coated. Chinet is a good example of non-polycoated paper plates.

Generally, you don’t want to put food in the recycling bin, so uncoated paper plates should only be recycled if they’re very clean. They can go in the compost, though, food and all.

What about compostable plastic plates?

Yes, some plastics are actually compostable, because they’re made from plants, rather than petroleum. So, you get the benefits of sustainable dinnerware without adding contaminants to the environment.

There are a number of designations for certified compostable plastic plates and other containers, and often, they’re hard to tell apart. (We check the bottom of all our take-out food containers, and it can be very difficult to tell what’s compostable.)

Some of the symbols specifying that an item is certified compostable are:

The (classic recycling emblem) “chasing arrows” – containing the number 7, and it must have the letters “PLA” (which stands for Polylactic Acid, but the name doesn’t matter).

Sometimes, plastics are labeled “ASTM D6400” or “ASTM D6868”, which also indicate that they’re certified compostable.

The Biodegradable Products Instituted logo for compostable products is also a reliable indicator that the product is compostable.

Watch out for misleading “green” terminology on that disposable plate packaging!

A few words of warning: as with many of the labels slapped on consumer product packaging, some of labels are not really meaningful, as they don’t have a certified meaning (they’re just clever marketing). Some of the terminology that may be considered misleading, intentionally or not, are the following, which do not mean compostable:

  • Made from plants
  • Made from plant starch
  • Biodegradable
  • Oxo-Degradable
  • BIO
  • Eco-Friendly
  • Earth-Friendly
  • Made with Recycled Content
  • Green

None of those terms indicate that the product is compostable.

Are there any better, sustainable alternatives to paper plates?

There are even better alternatives for disposable dinnerware than we’ve mentioned so far.

There’s a new generation of compostable plates that are, in fact, not actually made of paper from trees, but are made from sugarcane material. They don’t contain any plastic or wax lining, and are unbleached, dye-free, gluten-free, and BPA-free. They’re also much more cut and oil resistant than paper plates.

plates made from sugarcane
Plates made from sugarcane

Sugarcane plates are a strong, grease and cut resistant alternative to traditional plastic or polystyrene (that cheap, easily broken pressed foam). Sugarcane fiber products are made from reclaimed and renewable material. Sugarcane compostable plates are ASTM certified compliant for compostability. They’re also great for serving hot or cold foods, and can be safely microwaved (up to 248 degrees) without deforming.

What more could you ask for in a disposable plate?

These sugarcane-based plates can be composted in commercial compost facilities and in home composting bins, although composting at home will take longer, as is true for pretty much all compostables.

Plates made of other sustainable, biodegradable materials

There are many other interesting, sustainable materials now being used in disposable dinnerware products.

Eco-Soul makes some very attractive and durable disposable plates from naturally fallen palm leaves. These wood-like plates are tough and extremely durable, yet lightweight like paper or cardboard. Leaf plates are resistant to leakage and sagging, and can handle heavy entrees and greasy side dishes – just about anything you plan to serve. And, they’re attractive enough for a fancy party – even an outdoor wedding. Attractive, sturdy, and they’re very good for the environment.

Chic Leaf also makes attractive dinnerware from biodegradable palm leaves. They provide tips on home composting of their leaf plates, and other valuable information on composting on their website.

Bamboo paper plates, which can often be reused many times, depending on the manufacturing process used, are becoming more popular, and more widely available. Often, they are reusable and compostable, so are certainly worth a look.

Not sure whether that plate is compostable or recyclable ?

If it isn’t clear that it’s certified compostable, treat it as if it’s not.

If you just can’t tell if it’s compostable, or recyclable, it goes in the landfill. As they say, “when in doubt, throw it out”. Or, if you have a few spare minutes, Eco-Cycle says, “when in doubt, give us a shout!”

Better yet, check any products before buying, to make sure they’re compostable or recyclable.

Speaking of recycling, check out our guide on whether recyclables need to be rinsed or washed, or not.

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