“Plastic forks – what’s the big deal? They are cheap and oh so convenient!” But there is more to a plastic fork than meets the eye. Once you look into it, plastic forks are more like a stick (or fork) in the eye. Please read on.
Plastic silverware is made from oil or natural gas extracted from the depths of the earth’s crust. Extraction is an energy intensive process happening frequently in areas of political unrest or sensitive environmental areas. Once extracted and refined, the fossil fuel is shipped to a plastic production company, where plastic is produced into pellets or “nurdles”, the original form of plastic that all other plastic is made from.
For plastic utensils, nurdles are melted down to a liquid state and poured or pressed into a mold to form the utensil. Utensil manufacturing plants are located all over the world including India, China, Mexico, and the United States, and all have varying degrees of environmental and employee health standards. Despite the rising costs of fossil fuel, energy, and materials, the price for plastic utensils are able to be kept low due to high volume mass production and extremely low employee wages at the manufacturing plants.
Once produced the utensils are bagged, boxed and transported long distances by ship, train and semi-truck to retail outlets or suppliers. When picked up for mealtime, on average, the plastic fork, knife, or spoon is used for a grand total of 10 minutes. 10 minutes and then it is dumped into the trashcan. The trash will then be transported to an incinerator or landfill and because landfills are sealed to prevent leaching of chemicals into the ground and water, it will take hundreds, possibly thousands of years to decompose. All of that for 10 minutes of use. “Wait”, you say, “it has a recycling symbol on it so I’ll just recycle it rather than throw it in the trash!”
While technically most plastic utensils CAN be recycled (plastic #6), this type of plastic is so cheap that there is no market to support actually recycling it. Transporting and recycling is an energy intensive process. Recycling cheap plastic for 10 minutes of use is not the answer.
“So what’s the solution?” you ask? DON’T USE IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. EcoAction Partners and the Telluride School District (TSD) agree that plastic forks while cheap and convenient, are not a good solution for the TSD cafeteria. And if we are concerned about what we are teaching our children (which we are) single-use disposable should NOT be the norm. Previously TSD had reusable metal silverware, but due to it being absconded or thrown away at the end meals, the metal silverware was gone. TSD was reordering silverware nearly every four weeks!
While single use disposable plastic forks are not desirable, the costs and resources required for steel silverware to be treated like disposable is much worse. If the Telluride School District is able to switch to reusable metal silverware in one year they will eliminate more than 55,000 plastic forks from going in the landfill! And if students take more than one utensil per lunch, such as a fork and spoon or knife, which most do, that number doubles or even triples!
Curious about how much space 55,000 plastic forks takes up? The Telluride School District purchases boxes packed full with 1,000 forks; each box is 15” x 7.5” x 6”. At least fifty-five of these boxes are used each year, which is the equivalent to 21.5 cubic feet, the size of a common refrigerator. And if students take more than one utensil per lunch we are looking at two to three refrigerators full of plastic going to the landfill after 10 minutes of use. Oy vey!
This refrigerator size plastic waste will be eliminated if the Telluride School District is able to switch back to reusable metal utensils instead of disposable. Do you want to support TSD in accomplishing this?
Here are some ways you can help:
- If you have children in the school, talk to them about the environmental problems with disposable plastic utensils. Then talk about how school silverware (and all of school property for that matter) should be treated.
- Clean out your silverware drawer of mismatched spoons, forks, and butter knives and donate them to EcoAction Partners. All utensils must be made of steel and in working condition. These will be sorted and donated to TSD for future use.
- Volunteer to help with lunch duty to direct students putting their trays and silverware away from 11AM – 1:45PM.
- Support the Telluride School District’s environmental efforts!
For more information, please contact Heather Knox Rommel at 970.728.1340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.