30 Seconds in Use - 1000 Years in the Landfill

After last month’s blog about single use food containers, it is now time to tackle another big food-related source of waste that comes with room for a quick, easy, cute and green solution: single-use plastic cutlery.

Before we get into the details and the numbers (you knew that was coming, right?) let me say something personal and probably very much a matter of personal taste: I hate plastic cutlery. I hate everything about it. I hate the plasticy look and feel, I especially hate the single-use aspect and I hate that plastic cutlery is pretty much useless for it’s intended purposes. Anybody who ever tried to cut anything with a plastic “knife” or broke a prong off a “fork” by stabbing, like, a marshmallow knows what I am talking about.

Also, seriously, plastic cutlery is ugly and using it makes me feel like I am on a plane trying to eat overcooked pasta with too little elbow room and a plastic fork with a broken prong.

My hate of the common plastic cutlery goes as far as a complete, family-wide ban on restaurants (if you can all them that) that serve their food with those shameful tools. Fortunately, I have a very reasonable and mature teenage boy, who shares my feelings.

But, there is a better way than avoiding you favorite Mexican/Burger/whatever place for the cutlery: BYOC!

More about that in a minute. First,

Plastic Cutlery: The Scary Numbers

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There are three aspects to the cutlery environmental impact story: the resources that go into making plastic cutlery (manufacturing), the resources that go into getting the plastic cutlery to the user (transport), and the environmental effects of disposing of it (end of life). Additionally, one could - and should - look at stuff like packaging, e.g. those plastic baggies that sets of cutlery come in - but this is not supposed to be a scientific report.

Let’s look at the extent of the problem by looking at the market. I found relatively recent numbers for the disposable cutlery market:

The global disposable cutlery market is estimated to be valued at US$ 1,705.5 Mn in 2018 and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 4.7%, to reach a market size of US$ 2,696.4 Mn by the end of the forecast period.

~ Source: Future Market Insights

For those of us not used to reading such reports and unfamiliar with the British way of writing numbers: we are talking a market of $1.7 billion per year that is growing by 4.7% every year for 10 years (forecasting period). That is a hell of a lot of money - and plastic.

These numbers are fairly abstract so let’s look at the number of plastic cutlery utensils used in the US every year.

Want to hazard a guess?

If you guessed in the millions or hundreds of millions - guess again

If you guessed single digit billions - guess again

If you guessed low double digit billions - you are getting there.

The estimated number is a whooping 40 billion pieces (2016 numbers so likely higher now) in the US alone!

To put it in slightly more intuitive terms: according to the Clean Air Council, enough paper and plastic utensils are thrown away every year to circle the equator 300 times.

These utensils, that we “enjoyed” for a few minutes either get incinerated producing greenhouse gases or end up in our landfills, oceans and on our beaches where they will still be hanging around 500 or 1000 years from now. We simply don’t know.

Be Part of the Solution

It is fairly simple to avoid using plastic utensils. Here are the three major sources a:

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  • samples in stores: those dollops of yoghurt or small piles of a that new microwavable risotto which stores like TJ or Costco hand out so freely are a major source of plastic waste (not to mention the paper waste from plates and cups). If you really think about it, it is totally ridiculous what happens here: a plastic spoon gets used for a few seconds and then lands in the trash and, unless burned, will still be around when your great-great-great- (many more greats)- grandkids graduate from High School, or Star Fleet Academy, or whatever else they might be graduating from in 2653.

    The solution is easy and healthy: do not consume these samples. I decided a long time ago (then mainly for health/calorie reasons) that I would never go after these samples. That cashew and a half on a bit of chocolate - probably not worth the calories and certainly not worth the plastic waste.

  • plastic cutlery at work - that one confounds me to this day. If a company has a kitchen it has a dishwasher to clean cutlery, along with plates and pots and pans. The solution here is easy as well: if the company refuses to provide reusable cutlery it is BYOC. Whether you take it home every day to wash it or rinse it there, or whatever else depends on personal preference. The important thing is not to use plastic stuff every single day. In the early 2000s, I used to use my own porcelain plate and metal cutlery for lunch at my company (lunch brought in every day with piles of paper plates and plastic utensils). Some people literally made fun of me because “treehugger” and some just gave me that bewildered look generally reserved for crazy people who, like, ride around in motorized shopping carts drinking wine out of Pringles’ cans at 10 am. I didn’t care then and I wouldn’t care now.

  • restaurants serving you plastic cutlery: the same rule applies: BYOC! Sounds like a hassle. Well, it really doesn’t have to be (see below) and saving the environment one (not used) plastic spoon at a time is worth a bit of hassle.

Eating in Style Wherever You Are

This is where we get back to the last blog about reusable take-out containers. Why not store a set of reusable cutlery along with your reusable take-out containers? And who says that you can’t do that in style: remember the FabMo Project of the Month a few month back - those cute roll-ups for pencils and crayons and - yes - cutlery.

They are easy to make (I made some and therefore they pass the “I can make it and therefore you can absolutely make it” test), super individual, make great gifts and will help you save 100s if not 1000s of those nasty plastic utensils that your great-great-great-great- (many more greats)- grandkids won’t have to pull out of the ocean.

Here are the instructions to make these cuties again.

Additional tip: using wax cloth for the inside will make cleaning them easier.

I’d love if you would share pictures of your creations!

And here are a couple of pictures to get your creative juices flowing:

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Breaking News (we don’t get to say breaking news that often in a crafting blog so this is with calling it out: The City of Berkeley just passed an (unanimous, I might add) ordinance banning all disposable food ware starting next year. You go Berkeley!.

Green, ProjectTina Baumgartner