Musings on Two Forks

Two Forks

Compare these two forks;

On the left is a fork made of Polystyrene (the non-expanded form) in China and bought in a 20-pack of ‘disposable’ cutlery designed for picnic use.

On the right is a stainless steel fork made in Japan around 40 years ago (I know this because I’ve owned it since that geological era).

The relevant economic parameters are as follows;

PS Steel Unit
Fork Weight 1.9 23.7 g
Fresh Material Price 3000 2800 £/tonne (£0.8:$1)
Recycling Price 1000 750 £/t

As you can see there is very little difference, except in the material density. So you’d expect transportation distances for plastics recycling to be shorter than those for steel, but they aren’t. Both are sent for recycling on the other side of the world. So why is that?

It’s a more complicated question than it looks, but the short answer is the variable cost of energy around the world.

A bit more deeply but still broadly speaking, transport energy is outweighed economically by processing energy, so what energy costs in a factory matters more than what it costs on a boat. When you then overlay the policy around energy production in terms of emissions, carbon trading and the like, variable energy cost is replaced by an arbitrage between residual waste disposal policy and product standards. In the end the market gets round to the inevitable bundling of all these factors, which in itself is expressed by the price for specific standards of recyclate.

So you can then quite legitimately say that like-for-like, polystyrene waste is more valuable than scrap steel because the market says it is.

The only other real difference is the lifespan. The plastic fork is single use. The steel one is 40 years of use, 3 times a day (less since my baby teeth dropped out;)) or 43,800 uses to date.

If we turn that 43,800 uses into a material equivalent that gives us 83.2kg of polystyrene forks vs. one steel fork weighing 0.008kg.

So given the really inefficient resource use implied by disposable plastic cutlery, why would we ever use it?

Here’s where the concept of ‘service’ comes in and it all gets a bit psychological.

Most of the time when we consider forks we don’t really care if it is made of steel or plastic so long as it shovels food from plate to mouth reasonably well. The food shovelling service provided by either material is broadly equivalent. So one steel fork provides roughly the same service as 43,800 plastic forks. But we don’t use disposable cutlery at home every day. We use steel.

So the answer must be in the conditions of use, not the use itself. And if we look at where people use disposable cutlery it tends to be in outdoor events; barbies, parties, picnics and the like or when a meal is eaten ‘on the move’. In effect we are willing to pay for the plastic over steel so as to prevent percieved disruption to the event or travel plan, probably because we percieve metal forks to require care and maintenance over and above the service that we pay for from them.

Psychologically my disposable fork is a one-night-stand where my Pluto fork is a relationship. And yet I own both. I’m a cutlery adulterer. So I must also percieve a potential for loss that makes me keep Pluto at home but travel with plastic.

And yet we happily use metal cutlery at the greasy spoon or the motorway services. We’re in transit then too, so if we were really married to our forks why not plastic for a quickie at the Little Chef? Are we being sold a fake family experience through cutlery material? Possibly, but if that were the only reason for material differences why is the ultimate in homely cutlery the wooden set saved for special occaisons?

I’m not completely sold on the psychology of spoons. I think its more staightforward than that. I believe that we simply don’t value plastic correctly and by that I don’t mean that the price is wrong. Our perception of value is off. But that’s not entirely our fault.

We’ve had 60 years of being sold plastics as cheap and disposable, instead of flexible and functional. We use the word ‘plastic’ in denegrating language and our cultural cues are to see plastic items as temporary rather than lasting. We’re now having to unlearn those cues and we are going to have to do it rapidly if we are to prevent permanent damage to ecosystems, especially the watery ones !

I keep my Pluto fork these days because its a memento, not because its a fork, but I also keep a plastic casino chip hidden away too, from only a few years later. They mean very different things to me but I couldn’t choose between them in terms of value to me.

I just threw away my disposable fork. I can’t remember when or where I bought it.



Author: Fishy Filaments

Recycling marine plastics into 3D printer filament

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