Parties can be notorious waste generators, with disposable plates and cups being major culprits. That’s why any search for green party planning tips will inevitably lead to this tip: use reusable plates. But sometimes, it just isn’t practical to serve on reusable plates — say, if you don’t have a dishwasher, or you’re hosting a large party. In those cases, make an effort to choose the most eco-friendly disposable plates you can.
The quest for eco-friendly disposables has led to options beyond materials like Styrofoam, plastic, and paper. The alternative materials below offer ways to green your disposable plate choices — though just how they’re made, and how they’re disposed of must still be considered. On that note, they do have one thing in common: they’re all compostable (with caveats). When it comes to dinnerware, composting may be preferable to recycling because food can contaminate recyclable plates, which for all intents and purposes makes them unrecyclable. Remember that any eco benefits from disposable alternatives can only be realized with proper disposal, and their manufacturing must also be weighed against recyclability/compostability.
Palm leaves from the areca palm turn out to make sturdy plates with very little processing. Companies like VerTerra and Leafware gather shedded palm fronds, sanitize them, and press them into plates, no glue or glazes necessary. Palm leaf plates are compostable in your home compost pile. However, their environmental benefits may be offset by the fact that suitable palm leaves have to be sourced from Southeast Asia.
Bamboo has the benefit of being a rapidly renewable resource because it grows very fast, but its environmental benefits may be offset because much of it has to be shipped from overseas. On the positive side, disposable bamboo plates are compostable in your home compost pile, although a representative at Bambu noted that they can take a few months to completely break down. They also often happen to be beautiful and natural-looking. Look for minimally processed, organic plates to ensure the greenest choice.
What if you could eat the plate after you finished the food? If you’re using a plate made from tapioca, you might be tempted, although the flavor and texture would be more appealing to the microbes in your compost pile. Tapioca, a starch derived from cassava roots, can be mixed with plant fibers to produce a rigid, almost foam-like plate — like Styrofoam, except biodegradable and compostable. Don’t compost? Tapioca-based plates, like those from Susty Party or Bamblu, can even be tossed with your paper recycling (as long as they are dry and relatively clean).
To harvest sugar, rollers crush stalks of sugarcane and squeeze out all the sweet sap. What’s left is the plant fiber, called bagasse. Bagasse makes great home-compostable plates that are an attractive brown color with texture. If you must use disposable plates, you might as well use those manufactured from the waste byproduct of a staple like sugar. Bagasse products are also relatively widely used by large companies such as Chipotle and Whole Foods, which suggests an affordability and disposability attractive enough to scale nationally. If compostable plates and containers became common enough, it could encourage the growth of commercial composting.
If you’ve heard of or seen biodegradable plastic, chances are it’s derived from the polylactic acid from corn. This plastic, alternatively referred to as corn plastic or compostable plastic, has been touted as a more eco-friendly way to have your plastic plate and responsibly dispose of it too. They look almost indistinguishable from conventional plastic, but there’s a big catch: they won’t break down in home compost piles, and they won’t biodegrade out in nature or in a landfill. They must be sent to a commercial composting facility, where optimal conditions can be sustained long enough to break down the plastic. Unfortunately, few cities collect compost and commercial composting facilities are few and far between.
Without a plan for proper disposal, the end-of-life impact of biodegradable plastic plates is just as bad as traditional disposable plates. Biodegradable plastic can be preferable over traditional petroleum-based plastic since it’s primarily based on renewable resources, but even that purported benefit is controversial because of concerns of corn’s role in the world’s food supply and drought-induced shortages.