Single-use plastic cutlery is one more item to absolutely refuse while moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle. If you want to live more sustainably and ethically, then all single-use plastic has to go. We need to break our reliance on non-biodegradable fossil fuel products and transition to a low-carbon society. Breaking our plastic addiction is one important part of this process.
Single-use plastic cutlery may seem very handy at times. But that does not mean that we should forget about all the harm that it can do. Fortunately, there are several alternatives that we can consider. In this article, we'll take a look at the problems with single-use plastic cutlery.
We'll look at history to find out how and why people started to use plastic cutlery. Then we'll take into consideration the different alternatives available. By the end of this article, I am sure you will agree that single-use plastic cutlery has no place in modern society.
Most of the disposable plastic cutlery that you will see in supermarkets or takeaways is made from polypropylene and polystyrene. Unfortunately, these are two very problematic types of plastic.
First of all, whenever you buy a plastic product, remember – its ingredients include finite and polluting fossil fuels. And yet manufacturers burn even more fossil fuels during the production and distribution of these products.
Making plastic consumes freshwater too. Buying or using such plastic items just to throw them away is hugely wasteful – and contributes to global warming and other forms of pollution.
Producing just one pound of plastic cutlery can take up to 78 liters of water and release 2.5 lbs of CO2. This means that using disposable plastic cutlery can have a profoundly negative effect on our planet, contributing to freshwater shortages and our climate crisis.
Both of the types of plastic from which we create disposable cutlery are also expensive and difficult to recycle. When they enter the waste stream, they are too small, fiddly, and contaminated to process effectively. Often, their color is also an issue in the recycling process.
Most of the plastic cutlery that we throw away ends up in landfills or contaminates the wider environment. These plastics can take over 400 years to photodegrade. Even that which gets incinerated can release carbon dioxide in vast quantities into the atmosphere2, along with other toxins.
Around our planet, plastic has entered and does damage every ecosystem – from the oceans, which will have more plastic than fish by 2050, to the human body. Each year, we cause more harm to wildlife through our disposable plastic habit.
Plastic contaminates all sections of the food chain, and most of us, due to our contaminated surroundings, are consuming minute particles of it every day. Throw away plastic today, and you might be eating it in the future.
Plastic can also often pose a risk to human health, both when plastic cutlery is used (especially with hot food) and from environmental plastic pollution. Plastics carry a range of risks. They can contain known carcinogens, and disrupt our endocrine systems3.
As if all that were not enough, it is also worthwhile considering that single-use plastic cutlery can also affect how you perceive the food that you eat1. Some foods might taste better to you if not eaten using cheap, disposable plastic cutlery.
Before we introduced plastic cutlery for the sake of convenience, metal or wooden cutlery was our only option. For most of human history, metal cutlery was the norm. Often, our modern ways of doing things are so entrenched that it is easy to forget that we've only been doing things the way we do now for a relatively short amount of time.
It was only within living memory, as plastic took off after the second world war, that plastic cutlery, plastic containers, and plastic bags became commonplace items. By the 1960s, plastic had replaced other materials in the kitchen, like wood, metal, and glass.
As consumers became used to a range of modern conveniences like dishwashers and washing machines, they sought out ever more time-saving ideas. And had more leisure time for picnics and other outings. Plastic straws became synonymous with takeaways, and fast food restaurants also came to prominence. Disposable plastic cutlery was born.
When it was first widely used, consumers loved the benefits plastic brought to the home, and, of course, when out and about. Cheap, convenient, and ever-present plastic began to take over our lives.
As supermarkets arrived and increased their market share, as take-out food became ubiquitous, and airline travel became mainstream, plastic cutlery, unfortunately, became a common feature of modern life.
Disposable plastic cutlery has not been around for long. And it will not be around for much longer. Already, there has been a huge increase in interest in reducing plastic use and tackling plastic waste.
More and more people are finding more sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly alternatives. And in many areas, consumers don’t have access to this choice. The European Union will be banning such plastic products from 2021 as part of the European Plastics Strategy.
Fortunately, whether or not we face a ban on such products, there are several other options we can choose to move away from single-use, non-biodegradable plastic cutlery. These options fall into two different categories – disposable, biodegradable cutlery options, and reusable alternatives.
First, for those who want to keep the convenience of not having to wash up, or carry cutlery with you when out and about, there are more eco-friendly disposable options. From bamboo cutlery and utensils to options made from sustainable wood, here are some of the eco-friendly alternatives that you could consider (🔗 amazon):
These options are great for easy catering, parties, or events. They can save you the hassle of washing up and yet won't cause harm from synthetic plastic products or create a waste problem.
Another interesting option to consider is cutlery that won't even require composting: edible cutlery.
However, even these options are not necessarily the most sustainable and eco-friendly choices. It is important, in general, to move away from a disposable society and begin to be more mindful of what goes into making every item we buy.
It is important to remember that while they certainly are less damaging than synthetic plastic items, each of these alternatives also takes energy, water, land, and other resources to produce.
So, while these are certainly better than single-use plastic cutlery, it is worthwhile considering being more sustainable and eco-friendly and considering the second option below.
Related: Can you recycle paper plates?
Far better than using disposable anything is choosing reusable options, perfect for a zero-waste picnic. You may already carry a reusable shopping bag, a reusable water bottle, reusable straws, and perhaps a reusable mug when out and about. So it should not be too much of a stretch to choose reusable cutlery as well.
The first and most obvious option is simply to carry metal cutlery from home with you when you are out and about. You could even give upcycling skills a workout and make yourself a travel case for your cutlery from upcycled material such as old clothes.
You could also purchase a travel cutlery set, to make it easier to transport the cutlery you need. For example, you could choose (🔗 amazon):
One final thing to mention is that for catering or parties, using reusable cutlery can not only be a little more hassle but also much more expensive. But you could still consider reusable options if, rather than trying to buy new for your catering or event, you look into second-hand options.
Often, you can pick up old but perfectly functional metal cutlery for next to nothing. You'll find a bounty of items like glass containers, cookware, cutlery, and so on second-hand. And mismatching metal cutlery could also give your event or party a chic, vintage feel.
You might even be able to source old stainless steel cutlery for free online. So this is something else to consider. (For a sustainable wedding, for example, which will look great alongside stainless steel straws on your table setting)
The options are out there. So it is up to us to make the right choices. If you must go the disposable route, choose biodegradable options or those made from recycled plastic rather than single-use plastics from virgin materials.
But better yet, choose reusable options (without plastic packaging) that you can keep for years. Ultimately, this is the most sustainable and eco-friendly choice.
We all need to let go of the mindset that everything should always be convenient and on tap, and think more deeply about all the things that each of us buys and uses.
We need to act more conscientiously and think deeply about the true and lasting impacts of all our actions. Remember, it is worthwhile putting up with minor inconveniences – especially when our planet, and the very future of humanity, are at stake.
|Harrar, V., Spence, C. The taste of cutlery: how the taste of food is affected by the weight, size, shape, and colour of the cutlery used to eat it. Flavour 2, 21 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2044-7248-2-21|
|Rinku Verma, K.S. Vinoda, M. Papireddy, A.N.S. Gowda, Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste- A Review, Procedia Environmental Sciences, Volume 35, 2016, Pages 701-708, ISSN 1878-0296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proenv.2016.07.069|
|Plastics and Health Risks. Rolf U. Halden, Center for Environmental Biotechnology, The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State, University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-5701|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.