Along with all the stuff you haul around in your bag, should you add your own utensils instead of using plastic ones that get thrown away after being used once?
Consider the situation in China, where an estimated 57 to 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are made, and thrown away, every year. With some 20 million 20-year-old trees needed to meet the country’s annual chopstick consumption, Bai Guangxin, chairman of Jilin Forestry Industry Group, has urged people to carry their own utensils.
Those of us who are more likely to reach for knives and forks aren’t doing the environment any more favors. Plastic utensils don’t account for all the contents of the landfills across the United States, but it’s likely that the fork that came with your takeout salad is still around somewhere.
To compensate for all the trees that have been cut down for agriculture and building projects, the Chinese government is planning to increase its forest coverage by 40 million hectares before 2020. Chopstick production could get in the way and there’s a nascent “bring-your-own-chopsticks” (BYOC) movement among younger generations in China and Japan (whose Shinto ideas of purity have fostered an even higher amount of disposable chopstick use).
Here in the United State, we may not use that many chopsticks. But we can certainly cut down on the amount of plastic waste we produce and consider carrying our own utensils or, at the very least, say we don’t need any when we order takeout.
1. Discarded plastic utensils are piling up in landfills.
The United States generated 32 million tons of plastic waste in 2011, accounting for 12.7 percent of total municipal solid waste. Containers and packaging accounts for 14 million tons of plastics, appliances and durable goods for 11 million tons and nondurable goods (trash bags, plates, cups and utensils) for 7 million tons.
2. Polystyrene often can’t be recycled.
Plastic utensils are usually made of polystyrene, identifiable by a resin code 6 printed on the product or on the packaging. It is not biodegradable and can last for centuries. As SFGate notes, while polystyrene only makes up less than 1 percent of the waste stream, “it’s still undesirable to throw it away.”
Polystyrene can be recycled (it’s a thermoplastic and can be melted down and molded repeatedly) but not in every municipality or recycling center. The reason: it simply costs too much for some centers to recycle polystyrene efficiently.
3. Plastic utensils aren’t made for repeated use.
Photo via Sean Hagen/Flickr
Plastic forks, knives and spoons were made to be discarded after one use. Washing them in hot water can cause them to degrade and curl up at the edges, resulting in crevices that food particles can slip into, leading to bacterial growth.
The best way to keep plastic utensils from adding to landfills is not to buy or use them, period!
4. You can carry your own.
Invoking the “BYOC” movement in China and Japan, we can start to bring along our own utensils. It is the case that producing these in the lunchroom might make some think you’re hyper finicky about germs and that may well be the case (it was why my late great Aunt Mardella carried her own utensils.) But think about how many people now carry reusable water bottles or travel coffee mugs, rather than getting their coffee in a paper cup they’ll use only once and toss. Why not do the same for your eating implements?
5. There’s historical precedent for bringing your very own utensils.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Single-use utensils are a very recent innovation in the history of human eating practices. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their hands (and ate while reclining). Forks only came somewhat into use during the Renaissance; people also carried their own knives to cut meat and bread. As the Guardian notes, some medieval monks were so used to wearing their knives at their sides that one sixth-century text includes a reminder to remove them before going to bed.
Using something once, from cups to bags to forks, and then tossing it is a distinctly modern practice. It is not one, it is fair to say, to be at all proud of. Surely we’d like our era’s legacy to be something besides being the age of plastic, or rather, plastic waste?
Photo Credits: Lohb, Thinkstock