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Expert reveals the dirty truth behind 'biodegradable' bowls from restaurants: 'There is no legal definition for it'

"It's complicated."

Disposable bowls

Photo Credit: @ wwf_uk / Instagram

The so-called "biodegradable" bowls at fast food restaurants are usually not as biodegradable as they're made out to be, a hint that many of these places engage in a practice called "greenwashing."

The scoop

A popular Instagram reel from World Wildlife Fund UK (@wwf_uk) about this reality has gotten people talking.

The narrator explains how you may see the word "compostable" or "biodegradable" somewhere on a disposable bowl. As to whether you should throw the bowl into the trash, the compost, or the recycling, the narrator says, "It's complicated."

The problem is, according to the narrator, these bowls are considered "contaminated" once you have eaten out of them, and they're usually made of a material that is not recyclable. Plus, compostable items can require industrial composting, meaning they won't degrade in your home composter.

The video also explains that the term "biodegradable" means an item can either break down in one week or 500 years since there is really no legal definition for the term.

However, if an item says "home compostable," it can definitely go into your home composter. Otherwise, that supposedly "biodegradable" bowl from your favorite fast food joint should go into the trash.

The narrator encourages viewers to visit recyclenow.com to learn more.

How it's helping

Greenwashing is the practice of making people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. Claiming that your disposable food bowl is "biodegradable" is often just that — greenwashing.

Knowing that the disposable receptacles aren't nearly as eco-friendly as you thought may encourage you to eat at home more often, which is usually cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally friendly.

Another option is to bring your own reusable containers to establishments that regularly use disposable ones, or you can encourage these places to use genuinely compostable items or non-disposable ones made from wood or other non-toxic materials that are reusable.  

Disposable items, especially those made from plastic or foam, can stay in the environment for decades, centuries, or even a million years, according to some estimates. But paper plates also require cutting down trees, which would otherwise produce oxygen and help keep the planet cool and healthy. Fewer trees also means less habitat for wildlife and less oxygen. 

Disposable plastics end up in landfills that require additional toxic chemicals to break them down, often polluting waterways and the ocean.

Meanwhile, if the world reused just 10% of plastic containers, almost half of all plastic waste would be prevented from entering the ocean, according to the World Economic Forum.

What everyone's saying 

There was no shortage of Instagram users expressing their thoughts about the post. 

One user wrote, "Good information. Nowadays anything sells in the name of compostable, including dustbin liners, which are mentioned as biodegradable but are really not."

Another added, "Great, so they're not really making stuff recyclable and environmentally friendly. It's just another meaningless label."

Perhaps one of the most insightful posts read, "I've [stopped] buying so much stuff." 

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