The Life of a Plastic Fork

04/14/2010 4:00 AM |

This is the story of Frankie, the complimentary fork that came with your order of take out food.

Frankie is better traveled than most. He started out as petroleum sitting deep below the surface of the Middle East, was conceived in India, birthed in China, visited sunny California, and the swamps of New Jersey before he found a temporary home in your hand and your heart (because the way to every red-blooded American’s heart is through his or her stomach).

1. Frankie starts as crude oil, which gets sucked up out of the ground somewhere in the Middle East (a process which destroys the environment and destabilizes governments!)

2. In a refinery in India, science happens. The crude oil is turned into shippable plastic pellets. It’s like magic, except for the part where plastic workers in India have dramatically higher rates of lymphatic cancer than the rest of us.

3. Buyers in China melt the pellets down, inject the plastic soup into four-pronged molds, run them through a cold shower to harden, and pop’em out. Tada, Frankie is born!

4. Bunches of Frankies and Francescas are packed snuggly into boxes and sent bobbling across the Pacific for their first journey to the Americas.

5. Frankie’s ship is received in a port on the west coast, where a truck whisks him away to a distribution facility in New Jersey. From there, your favorite restaurant buys him, and he’s loaded back onto a truck and trundled along into the city. More trucks, more exhaust, more badness.

6. This is the part where you come in: hungry city folk call in take-out orders until finally little Frankie is picked up out of his box and placed into some lucky diner’s (yours!) to-go bag.

7. Now begins the 20-odd useful minutes of Frankie’s life, as he’s used to shovel slightly greasy pad thai into your mouth, before you drop him unceremoniously into the trashcan.

8. From the garbage heap in front of your apartment, an NYC Department of Sanitation vehicle will pick up Frankie. It will dump him at a transfer site, where trash and recyclables are sorted before being sent to exotic destinations like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.

9. The standard plastic fork is made of polystyrene, labeled PS 6 inside the little triangular symbol stamped into most plastic products. Polystyrene is put in the garbage not because it’s entirely non-recyclable, as is the case with some plastic resins; it just doesn’t make economic sense to recycle it. So, into the garbage Frankie goes. Whee!

10. Polystyrene doesn’t biodegrade, which would be a sad fact if it weren’t for the even sadder fact that landfills are—ehrm—supposed to be hermetically lined and capped upon their closure. Without oxygen, not a damn thing in that landfill will biodegrade. Landfill doctors do this to prevent things from leaching into the soil and the groundwater, which, for whatever reason, they still do.

11. One of these things is bisphenol-a (BPA), the plastic additive that has been making big news for its cancer-causing properties. BPA is added to certain plastics to harden them for uses as the worst things you can add a carcinogen to: food containers and disposable cutlery, among others.

12. Eventually, Frankie will end up in the same spot as most plastic cutlery: a semi-putrefied landfill, oozing small amounts of toxic chemicals into the back yards of people who never had anything to do with him in the first place.

So, no offense to Frankie, but the plastic fork is destroying our world. To take a small stance, just remember that if you are taking your food home, or someplace else where real forks are readily available, get in the habit of asking for your food without the throwaway extras.

Learn to forget plastic cutlery when you can, and half the world will thank you.

6 Comment

  • I think this is a brilliant lesson to all. Before reading this article I had not thought of the environment consequences on using a plastic utensil. Now, I will surely be aware of the disposable plastic items I use and try to do my part to eliminate their use altogether. After all, people managed quite well for many years without plastic items in the past, it shouldn’t be that difficult to do with out them more often. Thank you, I will be sure to pass this on.

    From the plastic dumping grounds of Pennsylvania

  • Did you know there are compostable disposable spoons and forks available for use by take out establishments? They are actually in use elsewhere, like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, etc. They are available here too, through the likes of Grainger, even. Check them out!:…

    Inger Yancey

  • I like Frankie the Fork but have two comments. As you wrote disposable plastic utensils are generally made of polystyrene (#6). However, later you wrote that ‘BPA is added to …disposable cutlery’. BPA is NOT added to polystyrene and polycarbonate utensils (which may or may not contain BPA) are designed to be reused indefinitely, like their metal counterparts. FYI, BPA is found in some #3 and certain #7 plastics (polyvinyl chloride and polycarbonate) but NOT in plastics with recycling codes 1,2,4,5,or 6. The most convincing evidence against BPA is its potential developmental toxicity (as an endocrine disrupter); studies showing BPA to be a carcinogen have been limited and inconclusive.

  • maybe people would be more likely to listen to your opinions and read your article if you weren’t so cynical? I’m not trying to be rude but the beginning of the article was a major turn off… I agree though, everything we do today, even considering something small like the fork, has an environmental impact. I’m an Environmental and Sustainability Studies major and I was still a little turned off by the front side of this article…

  • using oil and products that require it doesn’t destabilize governments, thank you very much, it’s the government itself. the middle east is a world power because of its resources and frankly that’s just incorrect and unnecessary to the point you were making.

  • Who knew that drilling for oil causes government instability? I live north of Dallas, and have seen the armies of Dallas and Fort Worth marching on the armies of Houston and San Antonio. Austin is a goner. Oh, the humanity!