While visiting Lake Louise last summer, one of the most famous sights in the Canadian Rockies, I was horrified to see a plastic spoon float by in the pale green water, close to shore. Whether someone had purposely thrown the spoon into the water, or if it was blown in by the wind, the sight jolted me. It was an awful reminder of the reach that plastic pollution has; it does not stay within the boundaries of a landfill site, but rather infiltrates the entire planet, even this most iconic of places. Try as I might, I could not reach that spoon, and had to watch it drift away.
Plastic forks, knives, and spoons are one of those things that we tend to think are inevitable when eating on the go or feeding a crowd. Even though alternatives do exist, these are not widely known or accessible, which is a pity, considering the impact that plastic cutlery has on the environment. It does not biodegrade, and a recent study found plastic cutlery to be among the 10 most common types of plastic trash found on California beaches.
Along with shopping bags and straws, disposable plastic cutlery is yet another part of the pollution puzzle that’s threatening the world’s oceans and waterways. And, like bags and straws, it’s a direct consequence of our societal obsession with convenience, something that wouldn’t need to exist if everyone took a few moments to plan ahead before leaving the house.
Grist wrote about the problem of plastic cutlery in an article called “It’s tine to take America’s plastic fork problem seriously”:
“It’s hard to say exactly how many forks, spoons, and knives Americans throw away, but in 2015 we placed nearly 2 billion delivery orders. If at least half those meals involved single-use utensils, that would mean we’re tossing out billions of utensils each year. They don’t just disappear: A recent study of the San Francisco Bay Area found that food and beverage packaging made up 67 percent of all litter on the streets.”
What are the alternatives?
Most obviously, disposable plastic cutlery should be made illegal, which is precisely what France has done. All single-use plastic cutlery, along with plates and cups, will be banned soon: “Manufacturers and retailers have until 2020 to ensure that any disposable products they sell are made of biologically sourced materials and can be composted in a domestic composter.”
We should start carrying our own cutlery for eating in restaurants or on the go. Many people travel with water bottles, so why not forks and knives, too? Grist references Greenpeace China’s recent push to get people to carry reusable chopsticks, in order to reduce the 20 million trees currently cut down each year to make disposable chopsticks. The campaign has been hugely successful, thanks to celebrity backing. Visit Life Without Plastic for a number of great portable cutlery sets.
More restaurants should offer metal cutlery for people eating in-house. This may require changes in washing and sterilizing practices for takeout places. My sister’s pizza company ran into issues with the health department for offering metal spoons for ice cream, but it’s not an insurmountable problem.
Better disposables are available and should be purchased only when necessary. For your next big event, consider California-made SpudWare, made from potato starch, wooden cutlery from The Container Store or Amazon, or Bakey’s edible vegan cutlery made with various flours, to name a few. You could even experiment with baking your own edible cutlery; learn how here.