The history of plastic utensils: convenience at the expense of the planet

Plastic utensils are used almost everywhere, and most of them can only be used once. Every year, people throw away billions of plastic forks, knives and spoons. But like other plastic items like bags and bottles, cutlery can take centuries to break down naturally.

Non-profit environmental group The Ocean Conservancy lists plastic cutlery as one of the “most lethal” objects for sea turtles, birds and mammals.

It is often difficult to find replacements for plastic appliances – but not impossible. The logical solution is to always carry your own reusable appliances with you. These days, of course, this may attract a few puzzled looks to you, but before, people could not imagine traveling without their own set of cutlery! Using your own devices was not only a necessity (after all, they were usually not provided anywhere), but also helped to avoid illness. Using their appliances, people could not worry about other people’s microbes getting into their soup. Moreover, cutlery, like a pocket watch, was a kind of status symbol.

Cutlery for the masses was usually made of wood or stone. The devices of the representatives of the wealthier classes were made of gold or ivory. By the early 1900s, cutlery was being made from smooth, corrosion-resistant stainless steel. By the onset of World War II, one more material was added to the materials from which cutlery was made: plastic.


At first, plastic cutlery was considered reusable, but as the post-war economy took off, the habits instilled in the hard times of war disappeared.

There was no shortage of plastic tableware, so most people could use it. The Americans were especially active in using plastic utensils. The French fondness for picnics has also contributed to the rise in the use of disposable tableware. For example, designer Jean-Pierre Vitrak invented a plastic picnic tray that had a fork, spoon, knife, and cup built into it. As soon as the picnic came to an end, they could be thrown away without worrying about dirty dishes. The sets were available in vibrant colors, further increasing their popularity.

This combination of culture and convenience has led companies like Sodexo, a multinational corporation based in France that specializes in catering and customer service, to embrace plastic. Today, Sodexo buys 44 million single-use plastic tableware per month in the US alone. Globally, companies selling plastic appliances make $2,6 billion from them.

But convenience has its price. Like many plastic items, plastic utensils often end up in the environment. According to the non-profit environmental organization 5Gyres, collected during the cleaning of the beaches, in the list of the most frequently collected items on the beaches, plastic tableware ranks seventh.


Waste reduction

In January 2019, a Hi Fly plane took off from Lisbon bound for Brazil. As always, the attendants served drinks, food and snacks to passengers – but the flight had one peculiarity. According to the airline, it was the first passenger flight in the world to completely eliminate the use of single-use plastic.

Hi Fly has used a variety of alternative materials instead of plastic, from paper to disposable plant materials. The cutlery was made from reusable bamboo and the airline planned to use it at least 100 times.

The airline said the flight was its first step towards eliminating all single-use plastics by the end of 2019. Some airlines have followed suit, with Ethiopian Airlines celebrating Earth Day in April with their own plastic-free flight.

Unfortunately, so far, sales of these plastic substitutes have remained relatively low due to higher costs and sometimes dubious environmental benefits. For example, the decomposition of so-called plant bioplastics requires certain conditions, and their production requires significant energy and water resources. But the market for biodegradable cutlery is growing.


Gradually, the world begins to pay more and more attention to the problem of plastic utensils. Many companies create cookware from plant-based materials, including wood, such as fast-growing trees such as bamboo and birch. In China, environmentalists are campaigning for people to use their chopsticks. Etsy has an entire section dedicated to reusable cutlery. Sodexo is committed to phasing out single-use plastic bags and styrofoam food containers, and is only offering straws to its customers on request.

There are three things you can do to help solve the plastic crisis:

1. Carry reusable cutlery with you.

2. If you are using disposable cutlery, make sure they are made from biodegradable or compostable material.

3. Go to establishments that don’t use plastic utensils.

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