ConsumerWatch: Green Utensils Ending Up In Landfills

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — Utensils that are marketed as compostable or good for the environment are not living up to expectations, according to an environmental group.

“I’m not really aware of any composter that wants compostable utensils,” said Scott Smithline of Californians Against Waste. Smithline contends a significant number of the utensils are screened out at the very beginning of composting process and end up in landfills.

“They have a tendency to want to screen all the forks out because they don’t know which ones are going to compost in the first place,” Smithline told CBS 5 Consumerwatch. Smithline also said many of the compostable utensils that do make it into the compost pile get screened out at the end, because they don’t break down completely during regular composting cycles.

Recology, the Bay Area’s biggest composter, would not allow ConsumerWatch to observe the screening of food scrap waste. But the company admits having mixed results with compostable utensils.

“We’re experiencing everything you can imagine,” according to Recology’s Robert Reed. “Some completely compost, some only partly, some not at all.”

Environmental groups contend utensils pose several problems for composters. “Forks need a certain thickness for function, but that same thickness acts as a barrier to microbial degradation,” Smithline said.

Another reason, according to Smithline, is a discrepancy between composting certification standards and reality. It is also often difficult for composters to distinguish compostable utensils from non-compostable because they’re not well identified by manufacturers.

Utensils are certified compostable if third-party tests show they break down in 180 days in a commercial composting operation. But an average composting cycle is typically 60 to 90 days.

Smithline said utensil manufacturers and composting operations need to work out a new, realistic certification standard.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

  • Steve Sheer

    Confusion has been created in the Bay Area concerning bio-plastic products and their disposal into the green waste compost bins. Currently Recology – Jepson Prairie Organics compost facility is an Organic Materials Research Institute certified facility ( OMRI certified compost facilities are not permitted to accept any type of bio-plastic products ( into their compost stream.

    These bio-plastic products are being disposed of into green compost bins all through out the Bay Area. They are then transported to Jepson Prairie Organics sort facility, where all bio-plastic products are then removed to ensure Recology complies with OMRI product certification. The sorted bio-plastic products along with other non-compostable items are then transported again and disposed of in the landfill.

    SF Environments is the only government agency that I have been able to identify that both promote ( and requires ( the use of bio-plastic products. Even though these products are not accepted by Recology and violate their OMRI certification.

    Why does SF Environments endorse bio-plastic products that are not accepted by Recology – Jepson Prairie Organics?

  • Zachary Wright

    I work in a bio-plastic research lab at Stanford and we collaborate with many experts in the area of biodegradation. From the “green” point of view, it does not matter very much (if at all) if degradable utensils end-of-life destination is a compost pile or a landfill. SF should have instituted a certification program for biodegradation (180 days is great compared to decades or centuries for traditional plastics) and recommended/required businesses to use them. No changes should have been implemented as far as compost versus landfill end-of-life decisions for these items. It seems like a PR stunt and “greenwashing” by the city.

  • matt


    It is true that Jepson is OMRI, however, Recology SF sends green waste to more than one compost facility. Much of the bioplastic material is now shipped to one of their other compost facilities.

    Please see the link found on Recology’s web site:

    • Steve Sheer

      What? “Much of the bioplastic goes to more than one facility”. Are you trying to tell us that Recology sorts out the bioplastic at one compost facility and then transports it to another compost facility. What do they do then? Sprinkle into the compost to be mixed into the already sorted compost. If I have time maybe I’ll call the “OTHER” compost facility you mention. Fact is Recology sorts out “ALL BIOPLASTIC” to be sent to the landfill.

  • john

    There are truly compostable utensils out there which meet ASTM D-6400 standards and as well BPI standards. It is a disservice to lump authentic compostable products with products which are not biodegradable or compostable. Taterware mentioned in the news has 70% plastic in it, so now it will not degrade at all, especially in a landfill. Other products for example from worldcentric are truly compostable and are accepted by Recology, Z-Best and Newby Island composting facilities and do not end up in the landfill, as incorrectly stated in the story.

    • Steve Sheer

      Worldcentric Utensils only were able to get ASTM D-6400 for their “Knives”. The Worldcentric “Spoon” and “Fork” both failed ASTM D-6400 Certification. If you can produce a ASTM D-6400 Certification for the Worldcentric Spoon and Fork I’d be impressed.

      • john

        ASTM D-6400 test is done on the thickest product for a similar class of products. There was no separate test done for forks and spoons. World centric knives are the thickest and if they pass ASTM, so will the forks and spoons. All worldcentric utensils are also certified by BPI – the only valid 3rd party certifier of compostable products.

  • Peggy

    I would like to offer an alternative solution to the single-use utensil issue. EcoTensil makes a new product called EcoTaster, which is sleek paperboard utensil that actually does breakdown very quickly in compost. And they are made in the US from renewable, sustainably forested (FSC certified) sources. They are currently undergoing the long ASTM 6400 certification process, however, test results have shown they physically break down to non-visable particles in home-compost situations in 4-8 weeks.
    Composters will not need to discern between compostable bio-plastic and non-compostable bio-plastic.

    I would also like to note, it is unfortunate that a bio-plastic product producer with such integrity as World Centric, must suffer the consequences from companies producing similar looking products that do not compost.

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