This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
Plastic cutlery is everywhere, and most of it can be used only once. Billions of forks, knives, and spoons are thrown away each year. But like other plastic items—such as bags and bottles—cutlery can take centuries to break down naturally, giving the plastic waste ample time to work its way into the environment.
The Ocean Conservancy lists cutlery as among the items “most deadly” to sea turtles, birds, and mammals, and alternatives have proven particularly difficult to come by, though not impossible.
A logical solution is to carry your own, but you’ll likely draw a few stares. For centuries, though, it would have been a faux pas to not travel with a set.
“You would come with a little carry case, and it would be your own personal knife and spoon,” says Sarah Coffin, who curated the 2006 exhibit Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005 at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York.
Toting your own eating implements was not only a logistical must—none were usually provided—but also helped avoid illness. “If you come with your own,” explains Coffin, “you don't have to worry about someone else's germs in your soup.” What you ate with, she said, was also a status symbol of sorts. “It was a little like a pocket watch.”
National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
Cutlery for the masses was commonly made of wood, stone, or shells. More ornate sets could be made of gold or ivory, or even be collapsible for traveling light. By the early 1900s sleek and rust-resistant stainless steel started to make an appearance. By World War II, an even newer material had worked its way into the cutlery mix: plastic.
At first, plastic cutlery was considered reusable. Chris Witmore, a professor in archaeology and classics at Texas Tech University, remembers his grandmother washing her plastic tableware. But as the post-war economy boomed, the frugal habits instilled by the Great Depression and an agrarian history faded.
“After the mid-twentieth century overabundance comes to define how the majority live,” says Whitmore. That, he says, gave rise to a “throw-away culture.”
“The Americans were the disposable kings,” says Coffin. Among other inventions was the plastic spork, which The Van Brode Milling Company patented in 1970. But Coffin said the French affinity for picnics also helped spur the single-use boom.
Designer Jean-Pierre Vitrac, for example, invented a plastic picnic tray that had a fork, spoon, knife, and cup built right into it. You’d break them off to use, and just throw everything away after you were done. The sets were even available in bright colors—which Coffin said also helped make plastics popular.
That marriage of culture and convenience led to companies such as Sodexo, a French firm that's one of the world’s largest food-service providers, to turn to plastic. “[Convenience] really made this whole disposal space become part of our everyday life,” says Judy Panayos, Sodexo’s senior director of sustainability in supply management.
Today, the company buys 44 million disposable utensils per month in the U.S. alone. Globally, plastic cutlery is a $2.6 billion business.
But convenience has come at a cost. Like many plastic items, utensils often find their way into the environment. According to beach-cleanup data compiled by the non-profit 5Gyres, utensils are the seventh most commonly collected plastic item.
“Food and beverage disposables are overwhelmingly at the top of the list,” said Anna Cummins, executive director of 5Gyres, intentionally highlighting the whole category.
She argues that environmentalists’ recent focus on individual items—whether bags, straws, or otherwise—isn’t working and that the sector needs to be addressed more holistically. “A focus on single products, while it's important, is not going to move the needle to the degree that we need.”
In January, a Hi Fly plane took off from Lisbon, bound for Brazil. As on the Portuguese airline’s other journeys, the attendants served drinks, food, and snacks—but with a twist. According to the airline, this was the first passenger flight in the world to be completely free of single-use plastics.
Hi Fly used a range of replacement materials, from paper to plant-based disposables. The cutlery was made from reusable bamboo, which the airline planned to take back to its catering facilities and wash—as many as 100 times.
The flight, the airline said, was its first step toward eliminating all single-use plastics by the end of 2019. Others have followed suit; Ethiopian airlines marked April’s Earth Day with a plastics-free flight of its own.
Cutlery is part of the broader anti-plastics backlash. In 2016, France was the first country to ban plastic dinnerware. People around the world are experimenting with alternatives to plastic that range from potato starch and areca leaves to grain-based edible cutlery.
Sales of such plastic substitutes remain relatively low, often hindered by higher costs and sometimes questionable environmental benefits. So-called bioplastic options, for example, made from plant-based materials, can require specific conditions to break down, and even they take energy and water to produce. But the market for them and for other forms of biodegradable cutlery is growing.
PLANET OR PLASTIC?
Three things you can do to be part of the solution:
1. Carry reusable cutlery.
2. If you use disposable cutlery, make sure it's made of a biodegradable or compostable material.
3. Choose to eat at establishments that don't use plastic utensils.
A new take on single use
A host of companies are creating utensils from plant-based materials, including wood. Some of them source materials from fast-growing trees like birch or bamboo; Canadian brand Aspenware includes excess wood from the lumber industry in its utensils.
A line of disposable wooden cutlery called Clickeat is one example. A set of thin utensils (fork, knife, and an optional spoon) that’s linked at the handle, it snaps apart into individual instruments that can be disposed of after they’re used.
“It's compostable and biodegradable,” says founder Steven Adler.
Adler first realized the extent of the plastic waste issue about 10 years ago, while surfing with a friend in Chile. The beach was covered in plastic litter. Alarmed, Adler started talking with others about how to best address the issue.
“Everyone was talking about plastic bags and bottles, but no one was talking about utensils,” he remembers. Setting out to design an alternative, they founded their company, Simplo.
While Adler sees Clickeat as preferable to many other options out there—especially bioplastics—he insists he’s not trying to keep people from finding other solutions, like carrying their own cutlery; he merely wants to provide better options.
“Our goal is not to replace reusable things,” he said. “We're trying to redefine the concept of single use.”
In China, environmentalists have campaigned for people to carry their own chopsticks. The online marketplace Etsy has a whole section dedicated to reusable cutlery. And the BYO cutlery movement appears to be gaining steam.
“I carry them around in my backpack,” says Panayos of her reusable cutlery.
Sodexo has more broadly committed to phasing out single-use plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers, as well as making straws a “by request” item.
But Panayos says plastic utensils remain particularly vexing to replace on a large scale. Problem spots include facilities that have limited dishwashing capabilities and places like prisons where more pliable, less dangerous, options are necessary.
Says Chris Whitmore, the Texas Tech professor: “When plastics turn out to be everywhere and ingested by everything, the only direction one can go is reduction."
MORE ARTICLES FROM THE STORY OF PLASTIC SERIES
How your toothbrush became a part of the plastic crisis
The sticky problem of plastic wrap
This common plastic packaging is a recycling nightmare
Cigarette butts are toxic plastic pollution. Should they be banned?
How the plastic bottle went from miracle container to hated garbage
How tampons and pads became so unsustainable
Tires: The plastic polluter you never thought about
Can medical care exist without plastic?
Your shoes are made of plastic. Here’s why.
The main reason for this is that plastic utensils are not recyclable. This means that they will end up in landfills, landscapes, waterways, and oceans. And eventually, they will break down into microplastics, finding their way into our food and our bodies, forevermore.Why carrying your own fork and spoon helps solve the plastic crisis? ›
Plastic cutlery is everywhere, and most of it can be used only once. Billions of forks, knives, and spoons are thrown away each year. But like other plastic items—such as bags and bottles—cutlery can take centuries to break down naturally, giving the plastic waste ample time to work its way into the environment.Why is it important to bring your own utensils? ›
Carrying your own eating utensils is not only a logistical necessity - it's not usually provided - but it helps avoid disease. If you bring your own utensils, you don't have to worry about having someone else's germs in your soup.What is the solution for plastic cutlery? ›
Wooden / Bamboo
Bamboo and wooden spoons are the most popular choice as a result of their price comparable to plastics, their availability and an easy acceptance by customers d as a sustainable choice.
1. Less Waste – By using reusable cutlery instead of disposable utensils, you can reduce the number of items sent to landfill. 2. Cut Costs – Reducing disposable utensils (as well as dishware and cups) dramatically reduces the costs associated with consistently purchasing disposable items.What is the solution to the plastic crisis? ›
Wherever you live, the easiest and most direct way that you can get started is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded.What are the advantages of reusable cutlery? ›
- Lighter than metal cutlery. Bamboo is a durable, natural, and sustainable material that is lightweight. ...
- Odour and stain resistant. Bamboo is robust and can resist water, moisture, and heat. ...
- Longer-lasting. ...
- Stylish. ...
Pollution of Waterways
This has led to the deposition of this plastic cutlery into waterways such as oceans, rivers, and seas, contaminating the waterways. And to make matters worse, these are the same sources used for providing water for domestic use, water for industrial activities, and water for drinking.
These utensils are lightweight, easy to transport, and can be disposed of instead of cleaned and reused. Buying and using plastic utensils can create environmental issues, raising overall costs and negatively impacting natural resources and landfills.Why should plastic utensils be banned? ›
In an effort to reduce the plastic waste accumulating in oceans and landfills, many countries around the world have sought to limit the use of single-use plastics. Plastic plates and cutlery are particularly problematic as they are designed for single use and often end up in landfills or dumped into oceans.
A: As long as they are washed in hot water with soap, there's certainly no reason you can't re-use most disposable plastic dishes and cutlery. Exceptions to reusing disposable tableware include paper, foam or the newer bamboo disposable items.Why do people use plastic cutlery? ›
1)Hygiene: as disposable cutlery is normally mono use it guarantees a high degree of hygienic standards. Especially important in food in hospitals or where the risk of contamination is high. 2)Lightweight: disposable cutlery is much lighter than standard silverware and this allows to carry it even in big quantity.Is plastic cutlery sustainable? ›
“A plastic fork can take 200 years to decompose, that is two centuries in landfill or polluting our oceans,” said Coffey.Why is metal cutlery better than plastic? ›
The total production process is cleaner versus plastics, especially due to the recycling. Stainless steel is a circular/fully recyclable product. If left in the environment, it will return back to its original natural shape, without polluting the air, water or soil.Why do we use steel utensils instead of plastic? ›
Having steel utensils to cook food can also have a positive impact on health. Steel does not erode or leach harmful chemicals during cooking. It's durable, sustainable, helps in retaining the original flavour and is easy to clean, like glass. Replace plastic bottles with stainless steel ones.Are metal utensils better than plastic? ›
Stainless Steel: PROS
Thinner and sturdier, which makes them better for sliding under cookies or lifting a heavy piece of meat. Easier to clean than plastic.
The forks often accompany spoons or help independently to pick food bites. The knives are used to portion the food. Dinner Spoon (Table Spoon) − It has elongated round cup. It is used to eat main course food items.Why would a metal spoon have a plastic handle? ›
Why? Clearly, a metal conducts heat much better than an insulator. A plastic handle, a good insulator, on such utensils reduces the conduction of heat to your handsies. A wooden spoon is another poor conductor or good insulator, and it serves the same purpose.Who is benefiting from the large scale use of single use utensils? ›
Consumers benefit from the advantages in cost, convenience and energy efficiency that single-use items provide.Why is a metal spoon better than a plastic spoon? ›
And, while a plastic spoon isn't a total disaster, you're still better off opting for metal when possible. 'A metal spoon is always better than a plastic one,' she added, explaining that it's all do with temperature. 'The metal spoon gets cold and helps to improve the overall eating experience,' she said.