Are Paper Plates Recyclable & Eco-Friendly? Looking Behind The Paper
We’ve all been there—in preparation mode for a dinner party, picnic, or barbecue and had the internal debate of whether to serve on ceramic dishware, or paper plates instead.
Then there are those times you’re eating at a market or sports game, and wondering, ‘What creates less waste?”
Is the more eco-friendly solution to wash reusable plates to create less harm to the planet? Or is the answer in disposables?
If so, must you toss them in the trash? Or are paper plates recyclable?
Unlike some of those Dixie designs, the answer isn’t black and white. It’s both yes and no—which is why we’re here to help.
After all, the demand globally for disposable dishware has never been so high.
In 2020, 219 million Americans used disposable cups and plates at least once, a figure projected to increase to over 226 million by 2024. The global paper plates market reached $113 billion in 2021 and is expected to rise to almost $129 billion by 2027.
That’s a lot of ballpark hot dogs and birthday cake!
In the following, we’ll break down how and if paper plates can biodegrade, be recycled, or be composted—and whether there’s a more sustainable solution altogether.
So, let’s dig into the (compost) pile of truths about recycling paper plates and the environment.
1. What are Paper Plates Made Out Of?
At the risk of asking a potentially obvious question, what makes up a paper plate really?
Paper is certainly one component, but it’s not everything and not all are created eco-equally.
Paper plates usually begin life as Northern Hemisphere trees like spruce, hemlock, birch, pine, or fir—meaning these trees (which take decades to mature) must first be cut down for the sake of catching your ketchup that ONE time.
In order to create your “classic” paper plate, the wood from trees breaks down via a pulping machine into little pulp fibers that are then filtered in order to get rid of dirt and any impurities.
After that, the pulp is bleached white (eek!) and poured into molds that make that classic ridged and disked shape. Finally, the pulp is then pressed, dried, and sometimes stamped with colors, designs, or patterns.
While sourced from trees, that doesn’t make them natural.
They often come coated with a thin film of chemicals or plastic to make them more durable and stop food oil and grease from dissolving them during use.
The production process for certain plate coatings uses polymers and toxic chemicals like BPA (Bisphenol A), phthalates, benzene, and even formaldehyde (yuck!), among other various volatile compounds (VOCs).
It’s also important to keep in mind that the machinery used to create a paper plate is a significant contributor to harmful greenhouse gasses to the environment, which cause both air and water pollution.
Have you ever driven past a paper manufacturing plant?
It’s not pretty, nor does it smell very healthy for humans, animals, or the environment.
But more than anything, these chemical coatings have huge implications on recyclability.
2. Can paper plates be recycled?
If your local recycling and waste management services accept paper plates, yes.
However, most don’t for a multitude of reasons.
Used paper plates with any amount of food waste on them cannot be recycled, plain and simple. Which sadly makes them not-so-plain-and-simple.
As with pizza boxes, the food residue (namely oil residue) contaminates the tiny pulp fibers and are impossible to recover in the recycling process because, unlike plastic recycling, paper recycling doesn’t use heat to burn away such residues.
Are coated paper plates recyclable?
Beyond that, if they bear plastic coatings on them, it becomes difficult and incredibly energy inefficient to separate the plastic from the paper, meaning most recycling plants will also pass.
On a more positive note, wax-coated plates and cardboard—100% recyclable alongside cardboard and paper items—are becoming a more viable alternative.
But as it stands, most soiled and/or coated paper and cardboard are only biodegradable, sometimes compostable, and definitely not recyclable.
What about uncoated options? If plastic films are part of the problem, are uncoated paper plates recyclable?
Yes, but only if they’re unused (or used to catch benign crumbs that didn’t actually stain the paper with any food contamination) and you know for certain they don’t have some invisible film.
3. Are Paper Plates Biodegradable?
First, it’s important to distinguish between biodegradable and compostable.
All compostable items biodegrade, but not all biodegradable items are compostable. After all, even traditional plastic plates are technically biodegradable after five hundred years or so, but that doesn’t mean you want it in your compost.
That said, most paper plates are fully biodegradable, especially at industrial biodegradable waste centers.
But how long does it take for a paper plate to decompose?
When left to decay in the right conditions, they decompose fairly quickly—approximately six months to a year.
But the “right” conditions are rare and the New York City Department of Sanitation puts full decomposition at five whole years, not six months.
Plates that are manufactured with plastic coating tend to take much longer to biodegrade, as the plastic coating can last for years.
Decomposition speed aside, it doesn’t matter when they only end up biodegrading in landfills, where they’ll still release methane gas buried under mountains of other organic matter. This is concerning because methane is the most potent form of GHG emission, only released with the anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition of organic matter.
4. Are Paper Plates Compostable?
Uncoated paper plates are biodegradable, then, but do paper plates biodegrade quickly and cleanly enough to be considered for compost?
And if so, what paper plates are compostable?
Composting is actually the very best option in terms of what to do with your soiled or used paper plates—but only certain ones.
According to the San Francisco Environment Department, to determine if a disposable plate, cup, or utensil is compostable, it must be labeled “compostable”. The label is most commonly found on the bottom of a cup or plate, or on the handle of a utensil.
Only 100% compostable plates can be labeled “compostable,” as it means these disposable items were certified by a reputed third party like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).
While coated paper plates may biodegrade, they can’t yield “usable compost” as required by the FTC for products marketed as “compostable”. This is because plastic and chemicals will leave residue you wouldn’t want to spread on, say, your vegetable garden.
Those that were used for art projects or have any kind of paint or ink on them should also not be composted for this reason.
Another label that indicates whether they can be composted is “PLA”. This means that the coating on the plates comes from polylactic acid, which is a vegetable-based synthetic plastic that is compostable.
Finally, Dixie paper plates aren’t recyclable nor are they home compostable thanks to chemical treatment, but they can usually be sent out for commercial composting.
Beware of greenwashed terms on paper plates
In order to be sure you can compost paper plates, they need to be certified compostable and should have a “BPI,” “PLA,” “compostable” or “plastic-free” stamp on them.
Take note that many companies use clever greenwashed marketing schemes to make their paper plate products “seem” compostable when they’re far from it.
Some of these misleading terms will include: “made from plants,” “biodegradable,” ‘bio-compostable,” “for compost,” “eco-friendly,” “BIO,” “earth-friendly,” “green,” “made from/with recycled materials,” “oxo-degradable,” or “made from plant starch.”
How to compost paper plates
Here are some tips and reminders to help you successfully break them down in your indoor compost bin:
- Don’t use plates with significant chemicals or coatings over the paper.
- Shred or rip the paper into tiny pieces to speed up the process.
- Rinse all used plates of any food waste or crumbs before you shred, rip, and compost. Any that have food waste or grease on them might contaminate your compost, or attract unwanted animals and pests.
- Don’t do too much to your compost pile at once. Paper contains a lot of carbon, which can skew the compost’s nutrient balance if not accompanied by enough green, nitrogen-rich matter.
- If vermicomposting, only add tiny amounts at a time to protect the pH balance of your worm bin. Be wary about what food residues they hold, too, because while worms eat many things, certain foods can disrupt their micro-eco-system.
5. Are Paper Plates Eco-Friendly?
If you were previously a proponent of paper dinnerware, you might be wondering what its impact actually is on the environment.
Even taking the waste aspect off the (picnic) table, the life of a paper plate involves a number of procedures, the first of which is cutting down trees, which means paper plates (and much of the paper industry) are not eco-friendly.
Paper products that don’t (or can’t) go to the recycling plant account for approximately 26% of total waste at landfills globally.
Meanwhile, the world currently uses around a whopping 400 million tons of paper per year.
Production to make paper leads to various environmental problems like deforestation, energy and water waste, air pollution, heavy water use, frequent contamination, and a host of other not-so-eco-friendly waste problems.
The Union of Concerned Scientists points out that “wood products,” including paper, account for about 10% of total global deforestation.
The loss of forests and other vegetation leads to negative impacts on the environment, such as climate change, desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, more atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and threatened livelihoods for Indigenous peoples.
Forestry certifications are designed to promote more responsible paper products, but they, too, fall victim to greenwashing and lack of enforcement.
Loss of ecosystems
Unsustainable approaches to forestry often destroy natural ecosystems relying on a complex and harmonious interaction amongst numerous species.
Eliminating a generation of a local forest, therefore, has a negative domino effect on other species that rely on the logged trees for shelter, food, or reproduction.
Then there are the logging roads that can separate habitats and negatively affect wildlife’s access to shelter and hunting.
Approximately 80% of the world’s land-based species are inhabitants of forests. When these forests are destroyed, animals lose their homes and cannot survive on the small strips of forest that remain.
Pollution & waste
To manufacture paper plates, chemicals and bleaches for wood pulps are required. This threatens the environment especially due to the large quantity of chlorine used.
Chlorine during white paper plate production often seeps into the air, soil, or water.
It’s ranked among the most hazardous industrial chemicals in large volume and can cause cancer, not to mention damaging reproductive or immune systems in both humans and animals.
6. How To Recycle Paper Plates Without Actually Recycling Them
Are used paper plates recyclable?
As we’ve established, usually no, but unused paper plates can be another story and there are other ways to recycle them that don’t involve your curbside blue bin.
From upcycling them for craft and home projects to donating unused bundles to those in need, you may still be able to ensure they get a second life.
What can you do with unused coated paper plates?
First, keep them in use as long as possible by washing them gently with soap and drying them for your next backyard BBQ.
Alternatively, donate them to charities or local events, or to a school or daycare that can use them for arts and eco-friendly crafts.
What can you do with unused paper plates?
Again, we suggest using them for arts and crafts, reusing them for dry sustainable snacks (they can be gently washed with soap and dried!), or sending them to the recycling facility.
Remember, unused, uncoated paper plates can be recycled, and here’s how the recycling process works:
- Collect your clean paper plates and either put them in your recycling bin for pickup or bring them to your local recycling team.
- At the recycling facility, they will be sorted. Anything contaminated will be removed and sent to the trash.
- The paper is modified back to a pulp. Adhesives or ink are filtered out using a screen. The inks and binders that make up the paperboard are removed.
- The paper is re-bleached.
- The paper pulp is rolled, dried, and cut into various sizes.
It’s important to note that most paper items (from paper towel cores to tissue boxes) are able to be recycled a maximum of about five to seven times.
This is because the fiber bonds in the paper become repossessed to the degree that they’re too short to form new bonds that mold into new paper products.
7. Paper Plate Alternatives
If you’re keen on a reusable option, using regular ceramic plates is going to be the more eco-friendly dinnerware option over anything disposable.
But some situations demand something more resilient than glass or ceramic—your kiddo’s upcoming birthday party, for instance.
If disposable is necessary, there are a number of better alternatives nowadays. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite eco-friendly plates for your improved carbon footprint below:
- Sugarcane plates: Made with leftover compostable, biodegradable materials after the sugar is made, these plates have a minimal environmental impact. They’re also grease resistant.
- Palm leaf plates: Palm leaves are harvested in a way that prevents tree damage. The palm leaves are pressed under extreme heat, which makes the plates. Once production is finished, they have a neat wooden-like appearance.
- Corn starch plates: There are many kinds of disposable, biodegradable paper plate alternatives out there now made from corn starch.
- Unbleached paper plates: Compostable, unbleached paper options beat the original white ones that are doused in chemicals.
- Other plant fiber plates: From hemp to flax to birchwood, there are all kinds of sustainable plant fibers that can be used to make paper plate alternatives.
- Bamboo plates: Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, with some varieties growing 35 inches or more in a single day. Bamboo can be harvested without harming or stunting the plant’s growth. While these aren’t disposable, they are durable enough to last decades under proper care and lightweight enough to bring to your next BBQ.
- Silicone plates: While silicone isn’t biodegradable or disposable, it is incredibly durable so if you’re looking for a portable and easily washable plate that won’t ever break and will last you decades, silicone is a decent choice—especially when kids are involved.
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Final Thoughts On Are Disposable Paper Plates Recyclable?
In the shift toward low-waste living, the goal isn’t perfection; it’s just trying to do better.
Are paper plates bad?
Unfortunately, almost always. From plastic coatings to toxic chemicals, even those earth-themes decorative paper plates aren’t recyclable or sustainable, plain and simple.
While dishwashing requires water and electricity, it still ends up being the best option in our (recyclable) book.
But if you’re keen to have a disposable option, check out more sustainable disposable dishware options or go for non-disposables that are just as lightweight and portable.
Lastly, if you have to use paper plates, do your best to avoid the coated versions, try not to soil them too badly, and ensure they make it into your compost pile.
If you found this article helpful (and eye-opening) please spread the message about the truth about why we can’t usually recycle paper plates and what the better alternatives are.