Plastic spoons are great — until they end up in a landfill.
As Dr. Elizabeth Segran recently writes for Fast Company, the plastic spoon is an example of a good design (perhaps even a “perfect” design, according to designer Peter Eckart) having unintended, negative consequences.
Eckhart and his colleague Kai Linke are currently hosting an exhibit in London that showcases plastic spoons of all shapes, sizes and colors as if they were archaeological finds. Their point is to spur conversation about how these everyday tools fulfill a useful purpose but then simply pile up as waste. A plastic spoon user probably doesn’t think about this as they’re enjoying a quick meal, but seeing the collection of spoons demonstrates that this usage on a wider scale adds up to an environmental concern.
This isn’t meant to shame plastic spoon users or makers. Instead, it’s a good exercise in looking at how innovations can unintentionally create new problems. The invention and rollout of plastic spoons certainly wasn’t done with bad intentions. They simply addressed a need: more and more people were eating meals on the go, and reusable cutlery wasn’t very practical in these situations. Voila! The plastic spoon (and fork and knife) emerged as a cheap and convenient solution, and soon they were in use everywhere.
But as we’ve collectively become more aware of the environmental impact of plastic, we’re realizing that there is such a thing as too many plastic spoons. And in this thought exercise about innovation, you can go one of two ways at this point — simply live with the new problem you’ve created, or work toward new solutions that build on what came before.
Letting plastic waste pile up forever probably isn’t the best idea, so many people are instead choosing the second option. The European Union will start banning single-use plastics this summer, and as Dr. Segran notes, there’s been a growing effort to replace plastic cutlery with wood and bamboo. This, of course, can create new problems, because these tools come from natural resources. Innovative minds will need to keep thinking about sustainable, cost-effective solutions.
As my colleague Chris Pardo recently wrote about, “green” mobility programs that make sustainability a priority could actually have an advantage in attracting talent. But like with the plastic spoon dilemma, getting to this place will require innovative thinking and new solutions. Mobility managers will need to decide whether they’re content with the current state of their program or if they can build on what came before.
Indeed, while the exhibit points out the genius of the disposable spoon’s design, it’s also a cautionary tale about how very innovative design can be destructive when designers focus on easy, short-term solutions. Plastic spoons arguably made our lives easier and supported the growth of various industries, but these benefits have come at an enormous cost to the planet. Most disposable silverware ends up among the millions of tons of plastic in landfills and the ocean, where it will never biodegrade, but break into smaller and smaller pieces that can ultimately end up in the food chain.