From takeout food to office parties, plastic utensils are everywhere. Like many plastics, however, they're easier to use than they are to recycle. It's tempting to wash and reuse your plastic utensils at home, but it's not recommended: They're designed to be used once only and may degrade with repeated washing and reuse. Ultimately, replacing disposable plastic cutlery with reusable utensils is a better option.
Plastic utensils are typically made from a plastic called polystyrene (see References 3 and 6). If the plastic in your cutlery is polystyrene, it will have a resin code 6 -- a number 6 encircled by a recycling sign -- printed on the plastic or the packaging. Polystyrene is not biodegradable and can last as long as centuries before it finally breaks down; in landfills, moreover, it may last even longer, since landfills are designed to store waste, not break it down (see References 4 and 6). Consequently, although polystyrene currently constitutes less than 1 percent of the waste stream, it's still undesirable to throw it away.
Disadvantages of Reusing Utensils
Even though polystyrene forks are not biodegradable, keeping and reusing them isn't a great idea. Plastic forks and knives are only good for up to a week, at which point they're too dirty for reuse. In general, plastic utensils and cups aren't designed for repeated use or cleaning; washing with hot water and soap may cause the edges on the utensil to curl up, creating spaces that harbor food particles and encouraging rapid bacterial growth (see References 1 and 2). According to Barbara Ingham, a food science professor at the University of Wisconsin, repeated cleaning can degrade the plastic as well (see References 1). In general, plastic cutlery is designed for single use -- so reusing it isn't a safe way to go.
But if plastic utensils are not biodegradable and shouldn't be reused, you might wonder what else can be done with them. Depending on where you live, recycling them may be another option. Polystyrene is a thermoplastic, meaning it can be melted and remolded repeatedly, so recycling it is possible; many cities and counties do in fact accept polystyrene products (see References 4). Many other counties and recycling centers, however, don't accept polystyrene because it costs too much for them to recycle efficiently (see References 4). Check with your local recycling center or county environmental services department to find out whether such facilities accept plastic cutlery.
Since recycling polystyrene is difficult and reusing it is unsafe, the best option is to use less plastic cutlery. When you order takeout, ask your server to leave out the plastic knife and fork -- you have your own. Try bringing reusable cutlery to office lunches or encouraging your colleagues to use reusable cutlery at office meetings. Save plastic cutlery for events where reusable cutlery would be not be feasible. When it comes to plastic cutlery, reducing is better than reusing or recycling.
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: Curiosities: Is It Safe to Reuse Plastic Knives and Forks?
- University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County: Food Reflections: Kitchen Food Safety: Bags, Bottles & Beyond
- American Chemistry Council: Polystyrene Facts
- American Chemistry Council: Polystyrene Frequently Asked Questions
- Environmental Protection Agency: Plastics, Common Wastes & Materials
- WasteOnline: Plastics Recycling
Based in San Diego, John Brennan has been writing about science and the environment since 2006. His articles have appeared in "Plenty," "San Diego Reader," "Santa Barbara Independent" and "East Bay Monthly." Brennan holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.
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