Plants vs. Plastic: The Advantages of Biodegradable Disposables


biodegradable disposable cups

Many quick service establishments use disposable products due to its convenience and low cost. Products like these save the labor and equipment it takes wash reusable products, and they are perfect for carry-out orders. However, these disposables are used just once and then thrown away, creating a tremendous amount of harmful waste.

The Dark Side of Disposables

Literally tons of paper, plastic and Styrofoam products end up in landfills every year. Unfortunately, products like these do not break down until hundreds of years later, and even then sometimes deposit toxins into the earth. Due to diminishing natural resources and rising energy costs, it is becoming increasingly important to commit to environmentally friendly products and habits.

Biodegradable Disposables

Green disposables, also know as bioplastics, have recently been introduced to the food service industry. Fabricated mainly from corn, sugarcane, potatoes and other renewable vegetable matter, these products can be commercially composted, or better yet, thrown away to naturally break down in landfills in a matter of months.

Corn Plastics (PLA)

Products made from corn are often referred to as PLA, although this term can also be used for products made from other vegetable matter. These environmentally friendly disposables provide an alternative to standard plastics and Styrofoam.

Creating Corn Plastics. Corn plastics are created by processing harvested corn into starch, which is then converted to sugar. Microorganisms turn the sugar into PLA, or poly-lactic acid. The PLA is blended with different starches and then shaped to form food containers, cups and even “plastic” grocery sacks.

Features and Benefits of PLA:

  • Made from renewable resources
  • Plastic-like consistency
  • Normally tolerates heat up to 120°F
  • Typically cannot be microwaved
  • Freezer safe
  • Allergen free
  • Composts in 30-45 days in a commercial composting facility

A Note About PLA: Although these products are made from corn, these plates are not edible and corn allergies are not an issue—no trace allergens remain in the finished product. PLA conserves energy by using only about half the resources that go into traditional plastics. PLA uses mainly renewable resources in their production, unlike true plastics which rely on petroleum products. PLA is growing ever more popular for dinnerware, cups and carry-out containers.

Bagasse Sugarcane

In addition to PLA corn plastic, sugarcane products provide an eco-friendly alternative to plastic and Styrofoam. These environmentally friendly disposables are made entirely from renewable sugarcane pulp, resulting in products that look and feel much like paper but are totally free of tree fiber.

Creating Bagasse. When sugarcane pulp is salvaged and converted to a paper-like substance, it is called bagasse. To make bagasse, sugarcane stalks are broken down into pulp and fiber. Normally these sugarcane leftovers are burned, creating air pollution and contributing to greenhouse gases.

Features and Benefits of Bagasse:

  • Tolerates heat up to 200°F
  • Made from a renewable resource: sugarcane
  • Paper-like consistency
  • Can typically be microwaved
  • Freezer safe
  • Allergen free
  • Biologically degrades in soil in 180 days
  • Composts in 45-60 days in a commercial composting facility

A Note About Bagasse: Although this product is made from sugarcane, no sweetness will transfer to your food. Like corn plastics, eating bagasse products would be unpleasant at best. These products hold both hot and cold foods and liquids without any trouble, yet break down easily after being thrown away.

Potato Starch (PSM)

Similar to PLA, potato starch is a form of PSM, short for plant starch material. PSM is a material synthesized from several different vegetable starches. The synthesis, along with other chemical modifications, increases heat-resistant properties of the product.

Creating Potato Starch. Potatoes are first washed, then sliced, smashed and processed into a slurry. From this state they are separated and dried before being processed again, this time in a machine much like a pressurized oven. The “cooked” starch becomes rigid and strong for plates or cutlery.

Features and Benefits of PSM:

  • Tolerates heat up to about 200°F
  • Some brands can be microwaved
  • Freezer safe
  • Cutlery composts in 90-120 days in a commercial composting facility

A Note About Potato Starch: A small amount of waste is produced during potato processing. This waste, a pulpy side product, is often given to pig farmers to be returned to the agricultural production cycle as animal feed.

Sustainable Products You Can Rely On

Although commercial composting is not convenient for everyone, the biodegradable properties of bioplastics still surpass those of regular plastics. Despite their ability to break down easily, they are unexpectedly sturdy and durable, able to stand up to the same use as any comparable item. They will easily replace any conventional disposable products you currently use for your food service needs, and you will not need to sacrifice quality to do it.

Because these products are so new to the market, they cost a bit more than conventional disposable products. However, the increase in cost is but a minor setback when you consider how your green enterprises can further your image and even your profits by attracting environmentally minded customers.


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