Disposable cups, cutlery and plates may be labelled as biodegradable, but do these items truly break down during the composting process?



Happily, the importance of waste minimisation is being recognised more and more, not only in the science and environmentalist community, but also by the mainstream media.

At Composting New Zealand, we welcome any efforts to bring sustainability and environmentally ethics into the public consciousness, and we believe that education on the imminent dangers facing us all if we fail to embrace more sustainable lifestyles is crucial if we are to make real and lasting change.

But in our rush to “do the right thing”, are we in danger of doing the exact opposite?


Aside from an issue surrounding the thickness of some PLA bio-plastic utensils causing a much slower degradation, there was also some concern around accepting materials mixed with food waste for composting.

Palmerston North City Council eco design adviser Nelson Lebo states that not all products live up to their labelling, and PLA plastic should be “totally avoided”.



“It’s worse than regular plastic. In municipal and backyard composting we can’t wait 18 months for something to break down.

“We can break down bones in our compost heap, but not PLA. That’s how durable it is.”



Compostable cups – good intentions

The flip side of the coin, of course, is that the intent behind any recyclable cups concept is a good one.

Measures that seek to reduce landfill should rightly be considered, and the team at Sustainable Business Network NZ presented some evidence in this piece that steps are being taken in the right direction when it comes to truly compostable cups and cutlery.

The concern, however, is that the marketing hype around the concept of “biodegradable” or “compostable” cups, might encourage ethical consumers to use these products feeling that they are contributing to a ‘greener’ way of living, whereas the truth of such claims is very much dependent upon the material used.

CNZ Policy on Biodegradable Cups, Plates, Cutlery

Our policy on these products, adhering to a “better safe than sorry” mantra, is simply that we don’t currently accept biodegradable food and drink containers, and remove them where found.

We discourage our customers from throwing cups, plates or cutlery labelled as biodegradable into green waste they bring to our sites, simply on the basis of doubt following the research from the good folk at Massey, and our commitment to maintaining quality compost products, free from potential contamination by non-compostable materials.

Instead, we recommend customers seek out quality reusable coffee cups to purchase as a sure-fire way of making a small difference and helping to minimise landfill waste.

More Information

For more information on the Massey study, see this recent news article at Stuff.


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