Are paper plates biodegradable? Can they be composted?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Paper plates are sometimes a great option for a picnic or party – no washing up and easy to throw in the trash. Although not the only concern, an item’s ability to biodegrade is a key factor in whether it is deemed environmentally friendly or not. Many people assume that paper plates are all biodegradable. And this would be a reasonable assumption to make. Paper is biodegradable after all. But is this the case? Are paper plates biodegradable and can they be composted?

Types of disposable paper plates

Knowing what an item is made from is a great start when trying to decide if is biodegradable and/or compostable. Paper plates are not all made equal. Some are shiny with designs to fit with your party theme, whilst others are dull in comparison and lack the shine. What is the difference?

Well, paper plates fall into two main categories; they are either coated with a thin plastic layer or they are made from standard uncoated paper. The plastic coating does serve a function – it prevents your plate becoming soggy and falling apart.

So, are paper plates biodegradable?

A biodegradable item is one that can break down into its component parts with the help of micro-organisms such as bacteria. Uncoated paper plates are biodegradable – they, essentially, return to nature. In optimal conditions, this should take a matter of months.

On the other hand, paper plates with the pesky plastic-coating can only partially biodegrade. The paper underneath the coating will biodegrade if the bacteria can reach it, but the plastic coating won’t. Plastic will break up into smaller and smaller pieces, but this is not the same as biodegradation – plastic did not come from nature, so it can’t return to nature!

Can paper plates be composted?

Composting is a great way to reduce the amount of household waste that you send to landfill. Not only that, but you will also produce some homemade, nutrient-rich fertilizer too! Contrary to popular belief, if an item is biodegradable it does not necessarily mean it can be composted. If it contains chemicals, for instance, this may contaminate your compost pile. But to be compostable, an item must be biodegradable – so we can rule out the plastic-coated plates straight away. They are, unfortunately, a no-go.

Uncoated paper plates, however, can be composted. As with other paper and cardboard items, it makes a great carbon-rich ‘brown’ ingredient to add to your pile. It is important to ensure you have a suitable mixture of both ‘browns’ and nitrogen-rich ‘greens’, such as food scraps, in your compost pile. You might need to do a bit of experimentation and adjust as you go, but we find a simple 1:1 ratio pretty effective. Just make sure you keep an eye on it – a shift away from a suitable ratio will show tell tale signs such as dryness or bad odor.

If you take the correct steps to make sure your compost pile is healthy, you should find composting paper plates a fairly straightforward process. Just don’t expect a massive amount of fertilizer – unless you have invited the whole town to your party! Either way, it is a great way to dispose of them. Soiled plates won’t be accepted for recycling, so landfill is the likely alternative.

If you are new to composting, we have answered some of the most common newbie questions here to help you get started. Good luck!

Things to consider when composting paper plates…

When you add anything to your compost pile, it helps if it is in small pieces. As well as providing a larger surface area for the bacteria to work on, it will also allow you to mix it evenly within the pile. Although, not essential, it will speed up the process a little bit.

Some food items are not suitable for composting. You should take this into consideration what has been on your paper plate when adding it to the pile. However, if you have removed most of the forbidden foodstuff, it is perfectly safe to add. Just ensure you bury it deep to mask any odors that might attract wildlife…

The bottom line

Composting is a great way to decrease the amount of household waste that ends up in landfill. The general rule to keep in mind for paper plates is that plastic-coated plates are not biodegradable or compostable, but plain paper ones are. Although not the most ideal for soggy foods, we recommend using these as your go-to paper plate. Better still, avoid them altogether – stick with ceramic plates!