The Rapid Growth of Biodegradable Straws and Utensils

05 April 2021
The Rapid Growth of Biodegradable Straws and Utensils

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass slowing of the restaurant industry that resulted from it, single-use/disposable plastic straws and utensils were a rapidly growing point of debate among restauranteurs, lawmakers, and consumers. That trend away from plastics has largely been spurred by increasing awareness of the harm that non-biodegradable waste wreaks on wildlife, particularly the high volumes produced in the last three decades. But no clear winner has emerged as the compostable alternative of the future. Different municipal and federal laws around the world mean manufacturers must account for multiple disparate rules about which materials are and aren’t allowed, and consumer tastes further complicate the matter. What follows is a broad look at some of the different materials and trends that will likely inform single-use utensils for many years to come.

Most consumers and restauranteurs will have had some experience with compostable straws by now, including the bevy of different options on the market. Paper and PLA (a plant-based plastic) are the most widespread and each has a distinct set of pros and cons. Paper straws are truly compostable; they can either be discarded in waste bins to compost in landfills or, in most locales, added to paper-only recycling bins. However, consumers have expressed some distaste for paper straws—especially the way they tend to soften after being in liquid for some time and the perceived taste that they impart. In contrast, PLA straws and utensils behave much more like their familiar counterparts because they are, for all intents and purposes, plastic. Consumers tend to favor these alternatives, but scientists warn that PLAs are difficult to recycle and require industrial composting facilities to break down; PLAs discarded in waste bins will do the same environmental damage as BPAs (“traditional” plastics).

These same tenets apply to utensils, although right now all “environmentally friendly” eating implements are made of either PLAs or recycled BPAs. Paper forks and knives aren’t feasible for obvious reasons, and no other compostable alternatives have been introduced to the market. In that regard, some experts argue that cutlery made of recycled BPAs are theoretically the more environmentally sound option because they avoid introducing new plastic waste into the loop. Practically speaking, though, once recycled BPA has been turned into cutlery it’s unlikely to be recycled again because very few facilities accept single-use plastic utensils—even when they’re made of recyclable material. PLA, on the other hand, is difficult to recycle but there is an increasing number of facilities getting involved in the practice. In short, PLA utensils will probably be easier to recycle in a few years than BPA utensils; barring some more readily compostable alternative, PLAs seem to be the way to go.

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