Jul 03, 2019 09:01 PM EDT
Plastic eating utensils are everywhere, and most of them are 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."
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 Whitmore, 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 US alone. Globally, plastic cutlery is a 2.6 billion dollar 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.
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