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The City of Portland, Oregon

Sustainability at Work

Providing free tools and expertise to achieve your goals

Phone: 503-823-7037


When is "compostable" not compostable?

To-go packagingWhat should you do with an item labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable?"

Put it in the trash.


We know.

Labels like "compostable" and "biodegradable" are well-intentioned, but they’re not always accurate. Many products labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable" don’t break down at our local composting facilities.

Compostable and biodegradable products should also never be put in recycling, as they cause major problems for the recycling industry. We know it’s hard to throw things away, but that’s where all take-out items (to-go boxes, cups, utensils) should go.

To keep our regional composting program running, we need to keep it clean, and that means focusing on the food. And food should be the focus – it’s what gives compost the nutrient-rich punch that makes gardens grow.

FAQs about composting

Q: What do I do with items labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable," like take-out containers, cups and utensils?

A: These items go in your garbage container, not in compost or recycling. This is true both at home and at businesses that sell or serve food.

Learn more:

  • What goes in your compost cart at home.
  • What goes in your compost at work.

Q: But I thought compostable products were the greenest option? Now what?

A: The greenest option is the one that’s used over and over again. Re-useable coffee mugs, water bottles and real dishware and utensils are environmentally better than their throw-away counterparts, even if the throw-away items could be recycled or composted. Just think of all the energy and resources that go into making something that only gets used once!

Encourage your favorite restaurants to switch to re-usable dishware and utensils for eat-in orders. For to-go orders, take away as little packaging and paper as possible. Bring your own coffee mug, and ask your local coffee shop to offer discounts for bringing your own mug.

Learn more:

Q: What happens to food scraps from businesses?

Food waste converted to energy

A: Most of the food scraps from Portland businesses are processed in a facility in Lane County that generates electricity from the food scraps before they are turned into fertilizer.

This facility does not accept yard debris or other non-food items like paper products or cups, containers or utensils (even if they're labeled compostable). That’s why many local businesses have moved to collecting just food scraps.

How does food turn into energy? Watch two kids explain it in under 3 minutes:

JC Biomethane for Kids from Kelly Lyon Photography on Vimeo.

Already composting at your business or want to start?

Find more composting FAQs, how-to information for restaurants and offices, and Food Only posters and stickers here.

Questions? Contact us at 503-823-7037 or by email.