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Biodegradable Forks: Not So Biodegradable

Dan Goosen, compost manager, holds up a spoon that says “Biodegradable,” found mostly undecayed in the compost heap. (Sally McCay for UVM)

File another one under “good intentions gone awry.” At lunch events, campus picnics, and in dining halls, colleges have distributed biodegradable utensils. But the cutlery isn’t, well, cutting the mustard.

The University of Vermont sends food scraps and other waste to a local commercial composter, where they are turned into rich, nutrient-dense soil to be sold to garden centers, landscapers, and in some cases, the university itself. The bioplastic forks, spoons, and knives purchased for the dining halls were supposed to meet the same fate, to save hundreds of pounds of landfill per year.

However, when Intervale Compost Products’ manager, Dan Goosen, turned over some of the piles, he found that many utensils had barely begun to wilt. Even after extra time in the compost heap, forks made by a company called TaterWare were still solid. They had to be sifted out by hand, by the thousands.

Even though the cutlery didn’t come from the university, Vermont has suffered consequences nonetheless. Because the composters couldn’t distinguish one brand from another—some brands do, indeed, break down as promised—they simply banned all supposedly biodegradable cutlery from their hauling. Intervale still accepts compostable plates and cups, which break down easily, and standard paper products like napkins.

Biodegradable utensils, which are made of vegetable starch and plant-based cellulose, have to be sufficiently sturdy and heat-resistant to eat with but fragile enough to break down within a certain time period. The Biodegradable Products Institute guarantees that the products it certifies will degrade at a rate comparable to that of other materials in a compost pile and will create high-quality compost soil. But much of the cutlery currently sold as a “green” alternative isn’t certified as such by the institute.

Tater Ware, which, as the name suggests, is made from potatoes, is among the products not certified as compostable. Erica Spiegel, recycling manager at Vermont, says all of the utensils purchased by the university were certified, and that the most of the offending forks must have come from the nearby hospital, which uses the brand.

Other colleges have had similar problems. The University of California at Santa Barbara has been able to compost its cutlery only by shredding it before adding it to the pile, and Tufts University has found that local farmers who compost the university’s waste are removing the cutlery because it takes too long to break down.

To solve the problem, some colleges are returning to traditional metal utensils (which require hot water and staff time to clean) or plastic cutlery, which goes straight to the landfill. Others offer their students carrying cases with reusable utensils.

Students sell a combination knife, fork and spoon that can be reused, in lieu of biodegradable utensils. (Sally McCay for UVM)

Staff members at Vermont are determined to find ways around the problem. “The cutlery is a tiny tiny fraction of our entire waste stream,” Ms. Spiegel says. “We still divert over five tons per week of food waste and food-related packaging to Intervale. These are the organic nutrients we are keeping out of the landfill and putting back into the soil.”

So what options do Vermont’s students have for environmentally friendly utensils? The university is now offering reusable plastic sporks to its students for a dollar. At last count, 2,500 have been sold.

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