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The secrets behind the plastic spoon: a ‘perfect’ design with terrible consequences

An exhibit at the London Design Biennale presents hundreds of spoons as a way to start a conversation about how even good design can have unintended results.

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Disposable spoons are a scourge on the planet: We use them for a few minutes to scarf down our takeout or ice cream, then toss them out. They end up in a landfill, where they sit for hundreds of years, or in the ocean, poisoning marine life. But a day may soon come when single-use utensils are relics of past.

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A new installation at the London Design Biennale helps us imagine this future by presenting hundreds of single-use spoons as if they were already extinct. Designers Peter Eckart and Kai Linke, who created this exhibit, gathered hundreds of spoons from their own collections, artfully arranged them by color and displayed them in glass cases that would typically house fossils or butterfly species at a natural history museum. The plastic spoons are designed to spur a conversation about how even good design can have negative results and the systemic change required to combat this environmental crisis.

[Photo: Marlene Bruch/courtesy Peter Eckart and Kai Linke]
In some ways, this exhibit came about by accident. Twenty years ago, Eckhart and Linke each separately started collecting disposable spoons. Both were fascinated by the design of these simple, everyday objects. “Some are really quite beautiful,” Eckhart tells me. “They come in different colors and materials. Some are even made by famous designers, like [Philippe] Starck.”

As a professor of design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach, Germany, Eckhart began using the spoons as a teaching device. He and his students discussed the spoons’ complexity, from the proportions to the materials. Together, the class created a “complexity map” that lays out all of these elements of the spoon; the map is on display at the London exhibit. “Plastic spoons are not just well designed, they’re perfect,” says Eckhart. “They are so effective at fulfilling a purpose, which is why they’re so popular around the world. But they’re also an example of how design can have unintended consequences.”

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[Photo: Heiko Prigge/courtesy Peter Eckart and Kai Linke]
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. 

There’s a global movement brewing to eradicate single-use plastics. Starting this summer, the European Union will ban it, and Eckhart hopes that soon, the only place we’ll find disposable cutlery will be in museum exhibits. But he’s also worried that designers are still seeking out simple fixes, like swapping plastic for wood or bamboo. “But when you think about it, this is replacing one problem with another,” Eckart says. “Wood comes from trees, which will need to be cut down, then shipped around the world. It’s not a more sustainable solution.”

Thomas Geisler, who curated the German pavilion of the London Design Biennale and selected Spoon Archeology, says one of the exhibit’s most powerful messages is that it encourages us to think about problems in a more nuanced way. “We live in a time when everybody wants simple answers,” he says. “But the problems we are facing are complex and multifaceted, and so they need complex solutions. We need to push for systemic, structural changes, not just quick fixes.”

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[Photo: © Eames Office, 1972, 2021, LLC. /courtesy Peter Eckart and Kai Linke]
So what could replace the single-use spoon? Eckhart suggests we imagine a completely different system. In the Spoon Archeology exhibit, he presents several films that offer new ways to think about eating. One is a little-known 1972 documentary called Banana Leaf made by the famous American industrial designers Ray and Charles Eames. The film explores how people of all classes in South India eat their food with their hands from a banana leaf. “What is interesting is that it transcends caste lines,” says Eckart. “The poorest people eat from a banana leaf, but those from the highest caste also eat from the banana leaf.”

Eckhart doesn’t necessarily suggest we all throw out our silverware, but he points out that in many cultures, there are already many solutions to eating more sustainably, so we might use them as inspiration to reimagine how we eat altogether. And as someone who spent many years in South India and ate many meals with my fingers from a banana leaf, I highly recommend the experience. You develop a new appreciation for the texture of food by feeling it with your hands, and when you’re done, there aren’t any dishes to wash—you can compost the whole thing.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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