Not Grandma’s Tableware

Style and Sustainability in the Dining Room

While many of us put great thought into the ecological impacts of the foods we set down on our tables, how much do we consider the impact of the glassware, cutlery and linens that decorate those tables? Housewares make up one of the biggest retail industries in the United States today, and "green" tableware is defining a new aesthetic.

© Fire and Light

For example, Tribal Fiber, a company committed to fair trade, produces napkins, table runners and dishtowels made from hemp/cotton blends that are attractive alternatives to those made with synthetic fibers, chemical dyes, or pesticide-laden cotton. Hemp is one of the oldest and most sustainable fibers, and grows well in degraded soils with minimal irrigation or pesticides. Tribal Fiber’s cotton is grown pesticide-free.

The textiles are dyed with natural pigments, including a rich blue made from a mixture of indigo, rice whiskey, betel nut juice, rice husk residue, lime and sugar cane water. Based in Colorado, Tribal Fiber works with village cooperatives in Thailand, providing women with income. "Some of the teenage girls don’t have a lot of opportunities," says co-founder Erika Johnson. "They can work in bars or go into prostitution; they are expected to bring money in through whatever means they can. But this way they can stay home and bring in income." Tribal Fiber employs 60 women in five different cooperatives.

"People put a lot of money and time into their homes," says Johnson. "If we can bring some alternatives into the home we can have an impact."

New Uses for Old Materials

Wooden bowls and utensils can also be a beautiful, as well as functional, part of your sustainable dining experience. Tribal Fiber noted recently that in many mango plantations in parts of Thailand, once the mango trees stopped bearing fruit, the wood was being scrapped. So, the company began using the wood, which is hard and non-porous, to make chopsticks and bowls. "It’s a plantation crop so there is no cutting of forests," says Johnson.

{2}o°??neurs around the world are also discovering a wealth of raw materials in old bottles. Wisconsin-based Green Glass Inc. uses a patented technique to turn ordinary bottles into extraordinary wineglasses, tumblers and vases. Their wineglasses are inverted bottles, slightly reshaped, and perhaps frosted or engraved. The silhouette of the product’s former life as a bottle is still apparent, underscoring its aesthetic appeal with an environmental message. "The first appeal point to the purchaser is the distinctive look," says Sean Penrith, co-founder and president, "and the desire is clinched when they realize that it is, in fact, an inverted bottle! That really grabs people—that a plain discarded bottle can have such an appealing afterlife."

© Green Glass

Green Glass is not just an inspired aesthetic; it is bringing recycling and employment to the developing world. Green Glass has developed low-tech, modular glass-processing units that are sold at cost to communities in developing countries to help them turn their own glass waste into new products. "This is particularly helpful for island nations who must import most of their food in jars and bottles, and then have nowhere to recycle or dump the waste," says Penrith.

Conventional glass begins life as silica sand. "Mining and transporting raw materials for glass produces 385 pounds of waste for every ton of glass that is made, but if you use recycled glass, that waste is cut by more than 80 percent," says John McClurg, president of Fire and Light, a Northern California company. Next, the sand must be melted. Producing a single 10-ounce bottle requires sand to be heated to 2,900 degrees—enough energy to burn a 60-watt light bulb for nearly 11 hours. The piece is then shipped to a bottling plant, filled with contents, shipped and sold to consumers. Once the contents are emptied, the bottle usually heads to a landfill, where it takes 4,000 years to decompose.

Recycling changes the picture. "Before 9/11, I used to say that we throw enough glass away to fill the two World Trade Center Towers every two weeks," says McClurg. Fire and Light recycles glass into distinctive bowls, plates and glasses. The products are made in the U.S. and come in a variety of colors that can be mixed and matched in festive combinations. "The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle can run a 100-watt light bulb for four hours," says McClurg. "It also causes 20 percent less air pollution and 50 percent less water pollution, as compared to when a new bottle is made from raw materials."

Glass can also be recycled in other ways. "What I do is called glass slumping," says Lauren Becker, owner of Recycled Glassworks. "I"m just heating it to its point of pliability, rather than liquefying it all over again. Glass blowing is much less energy-efficient, because you need to heat glass 1,000 degrees hotter than what I do," says Becker.

Recycled Glassworks goes beyond bottles to create dishware out of quarter-inch plate glass from discarded windows. "Bottled glass gets recycled, whether I get out of bed in the morning or not," says Becker. "Quarter-inch plate glass is all going to the landfill. There are very few recycling centers that deal with it." Bay Area contractors happily donate their old windows to Recycled Glassworks. "I get the stuff that is coming out of demolition projects, and I work with contractors who give me leftover slips of glass," says Becker. The result is an array of plates, platters and bowls that range from simple to ornate.

Companies trying to build business based on recycled glass all agree on one thing: If it isn’t beautiful no one will buy it. "People have got to like the look and feel of the glass; the fact that it’s recycled is an added bonus," explains McClurg.

The price of recycled glass doesn’t have to be high. "Because I’m working with recycled materials, I can keep my prices reasonable," says Becker.McClurg urges recycled glass buyers to look first at quality. "A lot of recycled glass made in Mexico has hundreds of bubbles, and you can pop them with your fingernail," he says. "Some people have been turned off recycled glass by the stuff in Mexico," argues Becker. "Pitchers from there are often made from glass mixed all together. It tends to fracture."

Some so-called recycled glassware can also contain virgin glass, so consumers should ask questions. "The finish is important too," adds Penrith.

Corn or Plastic?

The most egregious environmental villains in the tableware industry are probably plastic disposables. "Plastic is made of fossil fuel," explains Frederic Scheer, founder of NéT-UR, a company that produces cutlery, cups and plates out of cornstarch. "It takes 77 million years to make one drop of fossil fuel, and we use disposable utensils for less than 45 minutes. We use 110 billion pieces of cutlery in this country each year. It makes no environmental sense," he says. NéT-UR’s products are GMO-free and readily biodegradable. While conventional plastic takes 200 to 400 years to decompose, NéT-UR’s products will decompose in compost within 47 to 60 days.


If you thought paper cups were a better choice than plastic, think again. "The reality is that paper cups are coated with plastic polyethylene film," says Scheer. This is what enables them to hold liquid. "You are putting fossil fuels on paper and preventing it from biodegrading on a compost pile," says Scheer. But NéT-UR is hoping to solve this problem. "We work with manufacturers to coat their paper with our cornstarch film," he says.

NéT-UR’s products are priced comparably to plastic disposables. "Everyone is environmentally friendly until you tell them the price of your product. Then they"ll say what a great idea, but they’re not going to buy it. It’s sad, but the truth," concludes Scheer.

Perhaps the most energy-efficient choice in tableware is to simply head down to your local thrift store and buy it used. Thrift stores often have a wealth of dishware, from wine glasses to ceramic plates, to serving platters, reminding us of a well-worn truth: One person’s trash is another’s treasure.

JENNIFER VOGEL is an E intern and Yale University graduate student.