Indignity Vol. 2, No. 22: Can't cut, can't run.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 22: Can't cut, can't run.

Plastic Knives Leave Moral Wounds

A WHILE AGO, I gathered all the plastic knives and threw them out. The ones at hand, anyway.  The plastic knives were everywhere, and surely some escaped the purge.

Did I put them in the recycling? I forget. (Can they be recycled? New York City says yes, though the subject seems disputed overall.) I was so caught up in getting rid of them, I barely noticed how I did it. A plastic knife is a thing of shame, to be forgotten. A plastic knife is a mark on one's conscience, and yet a plastic knife is so rarely your own fault.

Nobody wants a plastic knife! They keep coming, anyway. The act of living keeps generating them. Certainly, broadly, we are all implicated in the ongoing murder of our planetary ecosphere. Sometimes I imagine coming face-to-face with my own lifetime's worth of accumulated waste: a mountain made of crumpled paper towels, shipping cartons, light bulbs, spoiled fruit, newspapers, shampoo bottles, broken or unwanted furniture, obsolete cell phones, a Honda sedan, cables upon cables upon cables—how tall would it all loom, by the shores of a lake of personal wastewater so thoroughly squandered it would probably look more clear than gray?

We will die if we don't take responsibility for doing better. I could have wiped my hands on a cloth kitchen towel, not paper. I could have bought the fruit more judiciously or remembered to eat it sooner. I could have brought a tote bag to the store. In theory. In practice—in practice, the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags means that we have to buy special-made single-use garbage bags for the wastebaskets, rather than reusing the shopping bags as trash liners. Fine. Probably, in the aggregate, it still comes out better overall.

The plastic knife, though, mocks this sort of moral inventory. It is a zero-use plastic. Like Amazon goods that get redirected to the landfill, the plastic knife does not offer even one transitory bit of usefulness along its lifespan. Nearly anything you could successfully cut with one, you could as easily cut with the edge of a fork, or with your teeth. Anything you might need to smear with it would just as likely break the blade. Cream cheese? Maybe, if you have any knives left after trying to hack the bagels in half.

No, the knife has no purpose but to symbolically round out the set of utensils, as if a well-trained footman had laid out a proper place for you inside the flimsy plastic wrapper. Or it's there to add deceptive bulk to the box of cutlery, so you run out of forks too soon and resolve to buy two boxes next time. It's an empty gesture, made out of solid long-chain hydrocarbons. Yet it will still be in the world after the takeout restaurant has gone out of business—after everyone who ever ate there is dead. When the rising seas breach the landfills, they will carry away unused plastic knives in their currents, to toss them onto unrecognizably transformed shorelines thousands of miles away.

We used to be above plastic cutlery, intentionally and sometimes even in reality. We didn't need it much, except at birthday parties. I would send the kids to school with normal metal forks from the silverware drawer in their lunchboxes, for eating leftovers out of their thermoses. The plasticware would still keep coming when we ordered takeout, mostly, even if we checked off the "no utensils, please" box, or (as the cultural norms grew more responsible) if we declined to check off "yes, please include utensils." It would pile up in a drawer, and then in a paper bag—an unnecessary fruit-ripening bag, left over from the grocery deliveries—and then in a pair of giant Ziploc bags set aside especially for the purpose.

Then the older boy started going to high school, with metal detectors at the doors, and that was it for packing metal forks. I did not have the willpower, before 8 a.m., to follow separate utensil protocols for each child. I dug into the big Ziplocs and started offloading the inventory, two a day. Sometimes they would have something that required a spoon. Never did they need a knife.

Week after week, as stray little paper salt-and-pepper packets sifted to the bottom of the bag, the knives stayed where they were. Week after week, the ratio of remaining forks and spoons to knives grew more unfavorable, and each morning's hunt for a fork took a little bit longer. Not only were the knives ruining the planet, they were wasting my time, time I could have been using to bundle up the trash for the kids to take out.

What were we saving the knives for? They would never be redeemed by keeping them. You could make the rubber bands into a ball and bounce the ball around. You someday might run out of ketchup and need some of the ketchup packets, maybe. The knives had been garbage since the day they were molded. The problem was impossible. I hauled them out in fistfuls and threw them away. When I die and go to Hell, they will be waiting there for me on the slopes of my great hill of trash. The devil will offer me a platter with a perfectly grilled New York sirloin on it (I will wheeze, for a moment of eternity, on the carbon emissions of a single cow), and then he will hand me a plastic knife to cut it with.


THE PREVIOUS ISSUE of Indignity was sent out with the incorrect volume number. It should have been Vol. 2, No. 21, not Vol. 1. We regret the error.