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Can You Recycle Plastic Eating Utensils?

written by: Keren Perles•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/29/2010

Can you recycle plastic eating untensils? Most people believe you can, especially if you clean them the right way. The real answer may surprise you.

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    So you've just served a three course dinner to twenty of your closest friends and family, using twenty sets of plastic forks, knives, and spoons in the process. Suddenly, you're struck with the perfect idea about how to safe the earth singlehandedly. You can just throw all of the plasticware in the dishwasher and run it through a hot cycle. That way, you can reuse the plasticware - being environmentally friendly and thrifty at the same time! You've been trying to reuse as many objects in your kitchen and around the rest of the house as possible, and you pride yourself on "going green." But then the question pops into your head: Can you recycle plastic eating utensils?

    cutlery image by Steve Snodgrass

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    The Myth

    Many people believe that reusing plasticware is just as safe as reusing silverware. As long as you wash it well, preferably in the dishwasher with warm water, your plasticware should be free of all germs. After all, plastic doesn't melt in the dishwasher, and why would plasticware retain germs in the dishwasher when other types of plastic (such as reusable plastic containers) do not? The myth that says how safe it is to recycle plastic eating utensils is widespread, but incorrect.

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    The Truth

    In truth, plastic eating utensils are called "single use" for a reason. Unlike plastic reusable containers, disposable cutlery is made of materials that are designed only for one use. Using them more than once, and washing them in between, can cause the plastic to break down and enter your food. When plastic breaks down, it also begins to act as a magnet for bacteria. Not only that, but the nooks and crannies in cutlery provide a safe haven for bacteria, and even the hard pressure of your dishwasher may not be able to remove the bacteria completely. Think about the area between the tines of a plastic fork, or the tiny serrations in a plastic knife, and you'll realize how many hiding spots bacteria can find in your plasticware.

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    In the News

    In the safety of your own home, you can make the decision about whether to recycle your plastic utensils. But if you've ever flown on Qantas, Australia's largest international airline, you've probably eaten off of recycled plasticware without even realizing it. In May of 2010, the airline admitted to reusing plasticware as many as thirty times before disposing of it. They said that their plasticware is more durable than the typical plastic utensils designed for home use, and that the utensils underwent a thorough cleaning process.

    At the end of the day, though, the answer to the question "Can you recycle eating utensils?" is a definitive "Probably better not to."

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