Reusability beats out biodegradability any day.
You may have grown accustomed to carrying a reusable coffee cup and water bottle by now, and maybe even a metal straw. But here's something else to add to your backpack or purse – a set of reusable cutlery.
There was a time when people carried their own cutlery everywhere they went. In fact, it was a mark of social status, similar to a pocket watch or jewellery. Wealthier people carried sets made of gold or ivory, while lower-class travellers used cutlery made of wood, stone, or shells.Sarah Coffin, who curated an exhibit called "Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Trade, 1500-2005" at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York in 2006, explained in National Geographic how reusable cutlery was not just about showing off, but also maintaining personal health:
"You would come with a little carry case, and it would be your own personal knife and spoon. [Bringing your own means] you don't have to worry about someone else's germs in your soup."
After World World II, plastic cutlery began to appear, along with countless other disposable items. Coffin attributes plastic cutlery's meteoric rise in popularity to a single-use plastic picnic tray invented by French designer Jean-Pierre Vitrac. From National Geographic:
"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."
The boom has only continued since then. To put this into perspective, an estimated 2 billion food delivery orders were placed in the United States in 2015 alone, half of which likely contained single-use utensils. Cutlery is the seventh most common item found during beach cleanups and is considered by the Ocean Conservancy to be one of the "most deadly" items for sea turtles, birds, and other marine animals.
Some companies have come up with interesting alternatives, such as cutlery made from wood (lumber offcuts and birch), potato starch, bamboo, grains, and more. While the intention behind these developments is good, it doesn't fix the problem of using valuable resources for an item that's only used for a few minutes. Take the issue of chopsticks, for example. Just because they're wood doesn't make them OK:
"Environmental protesters [in China] publicized how the roughly 80 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks produced each year eat up 20 million trees in the process. Greenpeace China launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) campaign and worked with pop stars to promote reusable chopsticks as a trendy fashion accessory. As a result, disposable chopsticks were banned from use at many venues hosting events at Beijing’s 2008 Olympics."
The simplest and most effective solution is to use what we already have in a drawer at home – reusable metal cutlery. I keep a spoon in my gym bag and a spork in my backpack, and both have come in handy numerous times. Carrying cutlery requires a habit change, but it's really no different than taking a mug, water bottle, a pen, even sunglasses.