The Story of the Plastic Spoon & Why you should care

Image:Max Temkin

You think it’s just a plastic spoon, you may even use one today and throw it in the trash without a care in the world. How does a simple plastic spoon define our culture today, society as a whole, politicians who fail to act while our oceans are being destroyed, it is a strange world we live in?

When thinking about an object that had to be created from materials that had to be harvested, it can be disheartening to think that all that effort was made just to throw it in the garbage, sometimes never even taken out of the packaging. Not only that, but what happens to the object after it is discarded. If matter is neither created nor destroyed, what then what does happen to it?

In this piece we will take an investigative look into the complete life cycle and story of the common plastic disposable spoon, from its humble beginnings to its all too often wasteful end. It is a story that we as consumers do not often get to see.

Introduction & History

The concept of plastic itself was first created in the 1860’s, with Alexander Parkes creating Parkesine, an organic material derived from plan cellulose that could be heated then molded. A few years later John Wesley Hyatt took cellulose and combined it with camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree, and created celluloid, the first “durable” plastic that would retain shape.

Plastic utensils were introduced in the 1940s, but did not start being mass produced until the 1950’s with two main causes:

1) The introduction of polypropylene and 2) the massive expansion of families into the suburbs after World War II. When the baby boom generation started to take off, the demand for dining ware also grew. With the affordability and convenience of plastic utensils an attractive draw to growing families on modest budgets, many families included plastic utensils in their kitchen set along with metal-based dining utensils. Though metal was typically used during regular meals, plastic ware became popular for larger gatherings such as birthday parties and barbecues.

Those consumer habits have kept on, and with the growing popularity of take-out food, plastic utensils have become more of an expectation then an added convenience.  It is now customary to receive plastic utensils in a take-out package as opposed to having to ask for them. With how cheap plastic utensils have become, it is not seen as an added cost to the restaurants but more of an added convenience for the customer in hopes to retain their business. For cafeterias in public settings, such as hospitals and schools, it is cheaper to purchase disposable plastic ware as opposed to having to potentially replace silverware and pay for water & energy bills to wash the metal utensils.


Plastic utensils are typically made out of two types of plastics: polypropylene and polystyrene.


The number one ingredient in plastic is the hydrocarbon, which comes from oil or natural gas. Both of these materials, again fossil fuels, are typically found within the Earth’s crust. All fossil fuels are reflective of their name, as they are merely the remains of organic matter that existed millions of years ago. Living matter such as plants, animals, fungi; anything composed of cells, is compressed by the growing weight of the Earth’s crust, eventually changing from the solid form into a dense liquid, which is crude oil. Under continuous pressure, the material can change into another state of matter; gas. That gas, or natural gas, typically sits atop of oil deposits or exist on their own.

The extraction of crude oil is an intensive engineering process along with continuously growing in national and international contention. Oil can be extracted on either land or at sea. Land extraction typically consists of fields of many small oil wells, tapping into multiple points across an identified oil field. Off-shore based oil extraction is often done with large scale oil “rigs” or large floating platforms that are able to drill down below the ocean floor while resting on the surface, separated by hundreds of feet of water.

Image result for oil rig, share talk


After the fossil fuel has been extracted and refined, it is then shipped to the plastic production company, which is where the construction of the plastic takes place. After all of the specified materials are called upon for the specific plastic needed, they are processed together to create the polymer desired. Typically the basic form of the plastic is manufactured into small pellets, also known as “nurdles”. Nurdles are the original form of which all other plastic forms are created from.

Nurdles are taken into the assembly line and often melted down into a liquid state, allowing for easier mass production of the utensil. The liquid is then formed and cooled into a malleable plastic sheet where the utensils can be easily cut but still retain shape.

Production companies for plastic utensils exist all over the world, but are most notably in the United States and China.

Working conditions for companies vary on the regulations imposed by the country and company itself, but most are in a typical factory format with manufacturing lines made for product production and/or assembly. When the plastic resins are changed from solid to liquid via heating, the possibility for some of the chemical additives in the resins to become vapor is highly potential.

Some have been known to be carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins (ERI, 2004). Often times, the workers in these factories share similar characteristics; younger and of reproductive age, lesser educated, often poor and in many countries outside the United States, workers are female. After prolonged exposure, plastic factory workers stand strong chance to absorb gaseous molecules and additives, increasing the risk of cancer, neurological effects or reproductive failure/abnormalities.


Distribution is the process of getting the completed product to retail outlets. Plastic utensils follow very similar patterns of distribution as most other products, but the expansion of production to other countries has made means of shipping the product more complicated and energy intensive. Once the plastic utensil is created, placed in box or wrapped in further plastic before being placed in a box, sealed and then placed on a shipping crate, it is then ready to be distributed.

All along this “supply chain” are hundreds, if not thousands of workers; driving tucks, manning vessels, managing trains or directing train yards, stocking shelves, keeping inventory, etc. The amount of manpower that is needed to go into managing how plastic utensils (and just about all other consumer goods) is immense, requiring a wide variety and quantity of jobs that pay a wide pay-scale. The major reason why many jobs have been relocated to other countries is the cost of labor for workers.

Though not only high amounts of human resources for jobs needed here, but shipping and receiving goods is a very energy intensive process. The best example to point out is the consumption of fuel to transport all of the goods. From ships, trains, trucks (and in some occasions airplanes), the movement of goods across the globe is a very energy intensive process.

While there are some fleets that are moving to bio-fuels or natural gas, the overwhelming majority of plastic utensil supply shipment rests heavily on petroleum. We can’t specifically point out that plastic utensil shipment is solely responsible for petroleum use, as it is most often shipped with other products, but the burning of the fossil fuel adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the main greenhouse gas that is attributed to the causes of global climate change.


There is a big market out for plastic spoons and other plastic utensils. In doing an internet search of both peer-reviewed articles and common articles, there was not a clear figure on how large the plastic utensil industry is as a whole on an economic scale. But, regardless of how much revenue plastic utensils generate, one of the biggest draws to plastic utensils is how cheap their up-front cost is to consumers. Again, reducing costs in labour wages and materials is a key way of how producers of plastic utensils are able to keep the prices of plastic utensils low.


As is the original intention of plastic utensils being “disposable,” the ultimate destination for plastic cutlery is the trash can. Now, technically the plastic types that make up most plastic utensils, polypropylene and polystyrene, are recyclable, but most recycling plants do not accept them because they are cumbersome to process and not cost effective per unit. Because of that, most plastic utensils follow a fate of either being placed in a landfill or incinerated.

Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic have been discarded and may persist for hundreds or even thousands of years. The mindset of disposable and single use plastic utensils has contributed to this in great capacity, and it does not show many signs of stopping. Then again, the supply of this “trash resource” has now become an economy in itself, by generating both jobs to manage the large load along with the energy it creates. Although the plastic utensil might be the ultimate in convenience and affordability, the life cycle around it is quite complex and we may not be able to afford the ecological and social costs if we keep using them.

Sources: Andrew Bernier – Prescott College 

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