FOOD FOR THOUGHT
By Brook Le Van
BYOF: BRING YOUR OWN FORK!
“You can blame people who knock things over in the dark, or
you can begin to light candles. You’re only at fault if you know
about the problem and choose to do nothing.”
I don’t know about you, but I was born before “disposables.”
Remember that line in “The Graduate?” A family
friend gives Benjamin career advice consisting of one
word: “plastics.” It was the ’60s and plastic, along with
numerous other inventions, was changing our lives. What
we didn’t realize was how much it was changing our lives.
We were all seduced by convenience. Have a party and
get those new paper plates and plastic forks; it’s so easy to
clean up afterward—just toss them away. In the last few
decades, however, we have come to understand that there
is no “away.”
We are in our peak season in the Roaring Fork Valley,
with the invitations for winter parties and grand fundraising
events pouring in. Soon we will all be attending countless
holiday bashes and benefits. We might even be hosting
them ourselves. Each one of us, as either a guest or a host of
these important and meaningful gatherings, will be partly
responsible for generating the use of thousands of plates,
cups, bowls, forks, knives, spoons and napkins.
As it is necessary to provide food and drink at these occasions, how
do we do it without adding to the solid-waste problems at our already
overburdened local landfill and contributing to the generation of yet
more greenhouse gases and downstream pollution? Well, luckily, we are
nearly a decade into the 21st century, and do we ever have the solution:
corn- and potato-based plastics. Ah, yes, technology to the rescue. We
now have “biodegradable” bioplastics for all our disposable desires. See,
they told us technology would save us.
I wish it were so simple. To make plastic packaging and utensils from
a renewable resource like corn or potatoes, which can then be returned
to the earth as fertilizer, sounds like an unmitigated good. But these
bioplastics have considerable drawbacks that haven’t been publicized,
and some claims for their environmental virtues are utterly misleading.
It turns out that, regardless of a fork’s source, there are systemic ripples
that challenge all choices of disposables.
Just in case we are not clear, the story is this: Regular ol’ plastic containers
and utensils are made of polystyrene, which contains a derivative
of petroleum. Prolonged exposure to styrene has been found to be toxic
to the brain and nervous system, and harmful to red blood cells and the
liver, kidneys and stomach. Styrene leaches into hot food, food with a
high-fat content, and food and beverages containing alcohol.
Another material used to make plastic forks is polyethylene
terephthalate, commonly referred to as PET, or unbreakable polypropylene.
PET also leaches into our food and remains a biohazard for
about a thousand years after disposal. So my first recommendation is
to avoid food packaging labeled with a “6” or “PS”; for example, clear
“clam-shell” deli containers, clear plastic cups and plastic forks, knives
and spoons that are usually made of polystyrene.
What about bioplastics? Polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic substitute
made from fermented plant starch (usually corn or potato), has become
the hip “green” alternative to traditional, petroleum-based plastics.
The good news is bioplastic is clearly easier on the environment.
According to an independent analysis commissioned by manufacturer
NatureWorks, fabricating PLA uses 65 percent less energy than producing
conventional plastics. PLAs also generate 68 percent fewer greenhouse gases and contain no toxins. And producing PLA—which is also
technically “carbon neutral,” in that it comes from renewable, carbon-absorbing
plants—reduces our emissions of greenhouse gases. PLA also
does not emit toxic fumes when incinerated.
The bad news is PLA in the U.S. is made from corn altered by genetically
modified organisms (GMO). And the world’s largest provider of
GMO corn seed, as well as the largest producer of PLA, is NatureWorks,
a subsidiary of Cargill, one of the largest agro-industrial corporations.
You can decide for yourself how accurate Nature Works’ “independent”
studies are. GMOs contaminate the germplasm of organic crops and
disrupt local ecosystems with their required large doses of pesticides
and herbicides. GMOs are also monocropped on an enormous scale,
which contributes to colossal erosion of topsoil and unprecedented levels
of water pollution from the toxic agro-industrial chemicals.
Another major downside demonstrating that PLA is far from a
panacea for dealing with the world’s plastic-waste problem is that although
the material does biodegrade, it takes a long time to do so. PLA
will break down into its constituent parts (carbon dioxide and water)
within three months in a “controlled composting environment,” that is,
an industrial composting facility heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and
fed a steady diet of digestive microbes. But it will take anywhere from
100 to 1,000 years to decompose in a home-composting bin or buried
in a landfill.
So, corn plastic to the rescue? I don’t think so. Yes, bioplastic is better
than petroleum-based plastic. But why are we using disposables at all?
All of these products, eco-friendly or not, will be dumped into a landfill
after just an hour or two of use. My concern is that bioplastic legitimizes
the single-serving, use-once, overpackaged throwaway culture.
By purchasing bioplastics, we are supporting business as usual and reinforcing
an old habit that must die. One local restaurant, Eco-Goddess
Edibles in Carbondale, makes the case each and every time you come in
for takeout or to discuss catering services. Lisa Ruoff, owner and chef,
says, “All of my customers go through ‘reuse training.’ I don’t offer to-go
cups or disposable or recyclable utensils for takeout. I would rather send
them down the road to another restaurant than add another disposable
cup to the problem. Soon they show up with their own cups, bags and
I remember having the life-cycle analysis discussion with our staff
five years ago, when Sustainable Settings grappled with serving up to
200 people for our harvest festivals and lectures. With disposables and
even recyclables out of the question, we ran the numbers on renting china, glass and stainless, and compared
the economic and environmental costs
to buying our own supplies. We learned
that renting tableware for just two events
would cost as much as purchasing our
own set to service 200 guests. Even with
the added labor and impacts of washing
with biodegradable soap factored in,
owning our own reusable set won hands
down over bioplastic disposables.
Another solution for restaurants is
to harvest stainless utensils from thrift
stores. I’ve seen forks, knives and spoons
at local thrifts for a dime apiece. That
is only a few cents more per piece than
new, toxic petroleum-based plastic or
bioplastic Spudware forks. Eco-Goddess
hands out these previously owned stainless
utensils with all to-go orders. Ruoff
laughs, “And they bring them back!
When I open up each day, there are usually
a few forks and spoons on the front
The truth is, we cannot have cheap
“convenience packaging” and feel good
about its environmental effect—or
have our takeout cake and eat it, too. It
turns out that the friendly career advice
our young graduate received in the ’60s
also suggests that we have a choice. Our
choice is either to wait for yet another
technological silver bullet that will allow
us to maintain our business-as-usual daily
patterns–which have led to the degradation
of our planetary life-support
systems–or take matters into our own
hands and change our habits. This holiday
season, light a few candles for those
in the dark. Be hip, be green and BRING
YOUR OWN FORK!
To design waste out of your life:
• Bring your own fork, knife and
spoon to parties and seasonal
• Bring your own coffee/beverage
• Bring your own bags to groceries.
• Bring your own bags when
shopping anywhere, not just the
• Bring your own resealable containers
for leftovers when eating
• Bring your own containers to
restaurants when picking up
• Offer no bags at your store.
Customers will get used to it and
start carrying their own bags.
• Charge for containers and
• Use safe, reusable containers
and real utensils for kids’ school
• Pack your lunch for work in a
picnic basket or lunch box, with
real utensils, china and glassware.
It’s not only eco-friendly but
• Rent china, glasses and utensils
for events you host.
A note to nonprofit directors everywhere,
especially organizations with any hint of an environmental
mission: Talk with your board, staff, volunteer organizers and party planners,
and demand washable, reusable tableware and napkins. Better yet, invest
in washable, reusable tableware for all your events.
Encourage guests to BYOF! Creative ways to make this happen include
a dishwashing station for rinsing off people’s utensils so they can
take them home without wearing a reminder of dinner. BYOF will also
differentiate your parties and fundraisers from others and demonstrate
that you and your organization are walking the talk.
Brook Le Van, driven in life predominantly
by flavor, is the co-founder and director
of Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit landbased
demonstration and research institute—
a whole systems learning center—
near Carbondale. Sustainable Settings is
devoted to building positive futures by curing
systems blindness in our culture and
reviving small-scale diversified farms and
ranches, the bedrock of local and national
food and energy security.