A Guide to Compostable Plates: Materials and the Correct Way to Dispose of Them

Learn how to compost bagasse, bamboo, vegetable starch, and palm tree leaf plates.

Piles of compostable plates at a buffet.

JD and Kyle Shoot Stock / Getty Images

Compostable plates are eco-friendly alternatives to disposable plastic or plastic-coated paper plates. Made from organic materials, compostable plates are useful at big events like parties, picnics, and barbecues where reusable ceramic plates are impractical. While compostable plates are still technically single-use, they biodegrade instead of decomposing in a landfill. 

When a plate is labeled “compostable,” it essentially means that it can break down in an industrial composting facility and biodegrade or compost. Composters can then sell that compost to plant nurseries or farms as natural fertilizer for soil remediation.

Compostable items are ideal eco-friendly options for people who live in areas with industrial composting facilities that accept them. Some compostable plates won’t break down in a regular home-scale compost bin because they need to be exposed to extremely high temperatures. How they’re made determines how you can dispose of them.

What Are Compostable Plates Made Of?

There is no single specified material designated as “compostable.” Compostable plates are made from a variety of materials, each with its own pros and cons involving aesthetics, durability, and overall eco-friendliness.

Bagasse

Bagasse is a naturally sourced material derived from sugar cane. Manufacturers turn it into compostable paper products with minimal processing. Without companies utilizing bagasse and transforming it into useful products, it would end up in a landfill.

Bagasse is a fibrous residue that’s left after sugar cane stalks are crushed and juices removed. Typically, bagasse arrives at compostable product manufacturing facilities as wet pulp, which is then pressed and converted into dry pulp board. The pulp board enters a molding machine where it is molded to take the shape of a plate. Some manufacturers take an extra step and mix the pulp with an agent that repels water and oil to make the material stronger.

Bamboo

Bamboo plants are strong, quick-growing, and they don’t need any pesticides or irrigation, making them an easy renewable source of material. And manufacturers who use bamboo plants to make compostable products are able to collect the material they need without actually harming the bamboo plants themselves. 

Bamboo products are typically made from the protective outer layer of the bamboo stalk known as the sheath. Sheaths fall off naturally as part of the bamboo’s growth process. After a plant matures and sheds its sheath, the material is collected, cleaned, and boiled before being laminated into the thickness of plates. Manufacturers press and bond the sheath to mold it into the desired shape—no chemicals required.

Palm Tree Leaves

Not only are products made from palm tree leaves environmentally friendly, but they also support local workers in the tropical locations where the trees grow.

Once palm tree leaves fall naturally, locals collect them for processing. This sustainable collection process does not physically harm the trees and does not contribute to deforestation.

The leaves are sanitized, dried, ground into a pulp, and made into a thin but durable fiberboard. Artisans use high-heat molds to shape the fiberboard into compostable plates and bowls, making several items with each leaf. Plates made from palm tree leaves are completely compostable as they don’t require any chemicals or binders. 

Vegetable Starch

Starches from various vegetables, especially corn and potatoes, can be used to make compostable bioplastics. These plastics are completely nontoxic and are able to decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass when composted in an industrial facility.

Unlike traditional plastics, bioplastics are not derived from petroleum-based chemicals, meaning their production does not release harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to the climate crisis.

The Correct Way to Dispose of Compostable Plates

While grease and food residue can cause serious problems with recycling, they aren’t an issue in the composting process. If you’re using a compostable plate, don’t worry about scraping off your leftover dinner before composting it.

How to dispose of your compostable plate depends on what it’s made of. Compostable plastics made from vegetable starches can only completely decompose when exposed to extremely high temperatures, so it’s best to send them to an industrial composting facility. If there isn’t one where you live, you’ll have to throw them in the trash. That’s why it’s important to consider the composting resources in your community before purchasing compostables.

You can compost plates made from bagasse, bamboo, and palm leaves in your backyard compost pile. Because these products are dry, brown composting materials, make sure there’s plenty of green materials in your pile to provide moisture. Consider cutting them into small pieces first to make the decomposition process go quicker. You can also send these materials to an industrial composter if you don’t have your own backyard pile.

Compostable products are not recyclable, so don’t put them in your curbside recycling bin. If you can’t compost them, throw them away. The organic materials in compostable products can damage recycling equipment, so a majority of recyclers don’t accept them.

Organic waste that ends up in the landfill can produce and release methane gas, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can regular paper plates be composted?

    Paper plates that do not have a plastic coating on top can be composted. The packaging will usually state whether or not the plates are suitable for the compost pile or if they have a plastic coating. 

  • How long does it take a compostable plate to break down?

    Compostable plates take about 180 days to decompose in a commercial compost facility.

  • Are compostable plates biodegradable?

    Yes, all compostable items are biodegradable. But not all biodegradable items are compostable.

    Biodegradable materials are those that can break down through natural processes that return their elements to nature. Compostable materials also return their elements to nature, but their elements are organic matter that, when broken down, actively nourishes the environment with nutrients.

  • Is compostable better than recyclable?

    Whether or not a compostable plate is better than a recyclable one depends on the composting resources in your area. If you have access to an industrial composting facility, composting is a more eco-friendly option. Otherwise, your compostable plates may just end up in the landfill, so recyclables are more eco-friendly.

  • What are other eco-friendly alternatives to compostable plates?

    Many compostable materials are only compostable in industrial composting facilities, which consume lots of energy and emit greenhouse gases.

    It’s always a more eco-friendly choice to opt for a reusable product to cut down on waste entirely. Use reusable ceramic plates or plates made from stone, recycled glass, or stainless steel.