Can Paper Plates Be Recycled? Composting and Other Eco-Friendly Alternatives

Someone holds a paper plate and uses tongs to put a subway sandwich on it, while someone else holds their hand out for the plate

SDI Productions / Getty Images

The short answer is yes and no. While some paper plates can be recycled, the vast majority usually can’t. Rather than throw them away after one use, consider more eco-friendly alternatives.

Nearly 220 million Americans use paper plates and cups, and this figure is expected to continue rising. As of 2018, the U.S. paper plate and cup market was worth $20.7 billion, making the country one of the largest consumers of these items worldwide.

Why (Most) Paper Plates Can’t Be Recycled 

There are two main reasons why the majority of paper plates can’t be recycled:

They’re Coated in Wax, Plastic, or Clay

This coating offers a smooth surface and prevents the paper plate from soaking up liquids or grease. Usually, the coating can’t be separated from the paper in a recycling facility, so paper plates can’t be recycled like regular paper.

Some municipalities may accept clean coated paper plates along with to-go food containers though, so it’s always worth checking your area’s individual recommendations. 

They’re Contaminated With Food Waste

Once they’ve been used, paper plates become covered in food waste which can sometimes be greasy. This adds contaminants to the recycling process, so most municipalities won’t accept used paper plates for recycling. 

How to Recycle Plastic-Free Paper Plates

If you’re trying to dispose of paper plates without any kind of plastic coating, then these will usually be accepted by most municipalities as long as they’re not covered with food waste, grease, or oil.

Check with your local recycling team about whether they will accept these types of paper plates in your regular curbside service.

Ways to Reuse Paper Plates

Caucasian girl cutting paper plate with scissors

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

If you’re trying to reduce your impact on the environment, then looking at ways to reuse any paper plates you do have is a good option. Even though they can't be recycled, you might find some other ways to put them to use.

  • Clean and reuse. If you bought heavy-duty paper plates and they’re only a little dirty after use—if you served dry food on them, for example—, you can clean them and use them again.
  • Craft projects. If you have clean paper plates, these can be used for a wide range of craft projects.  
  • Use as packaging. A folded paper plate makes a handy little basket for cookies, muffins, or other baked goods. 

What to Use Instead of Paper Plates

The most obvious alternative is to opt for reusable plates. Even though you have to wash them with water, the environmental impact of a reusable plate will still be lower. 

If you’re looking for a semi-disposable option, then you can find plates made from natural materials like bamboo or palm leaves. These plates can be used and washed or cleaned a few times. At the end of their useful life, you can put them in your compost pile and they will break down naturally. 

Can You Compost Paper Plates?

If you have a compost pile at home, then you may be able to put certain types of paper plates in there. Any plates that are labeled as "PLA" or "compostable" can be added to your compost pile. PLA (polylactic acid) is a bioplastic that’s used to coat some paper plates, and will be broken down as it’s composted.

Plastic-free plates can also be added to your compost pile. You may want to rip them into shreds first and add them to your compost pile alongside food or garden waste.   

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How long do paper plates take to decompose?

    It takes a paper plate roughly six months to decompose in a compost pile—and that's when it isn't coated in wax or plastic.

  • What are the most eco-friendly paper plates?

    If you must use paper plates, try to get the ones made of palm leaves, birchwood, bamboo, or sugarcane. These biodegrade faster than conventional paper plates and don't require cutting trees.

View Article Sources