Students and staff have since had to pay 0,25 euros for each fork, spoon, or knife, or 1,75 euros for an entire cutlery set – which includes its own portable box. “Quite honestly it’s pure crap”, Marketing Management student Yolande thinks of the new cutlery found in The Company and Etude cafeterias. “They break all the time, they’re not even good quality. Vitam says you can use them a hundred times, absolutely not. You can barely use it one time.” A nearby Econometrics student agrees. “The knives are quite shit, you cut with it once and then you can’t use it again. The teeth of the fork bend all the time.”

Not aware

I have been buying these and throwing them away, I didn’t think they were reusable

IBCoM student Zuzanna

Beyond the dire quality, the reusability of these new cutlery sets is also limited as students keep forgetting to bring them back. “This is the third spoon I’ve bought”, Media and Business student Nikolas confesses. Others like Zuzanna, a second-year IBCoM student, say that they were not even aware that these new cutlery sets were meant to be reused. “I started coming here pretty recently so I didn’t know that they had normal forks before. I have been buying these and throwing them away, I didn’t think they were reusable.”

The head of the Erasmus Sustainability Hub, Natasza Ciepal, warns that there is a ‘huge pile of waste’ being gathered as a result of this shift to plastic cutleries. “The EUR community already produces a huge amount of waste and this is just adding to the problem”. A quick look at Etude’s trash bins after the lunch period confirm her worries. Among bottles and other food wraps, the new ‘reusable’ forks and spoons can be abundantly found in the plastics and cartons bin located by the exit of the cafeteria.

Mass theft

Amidst these broken forks and forgotten spoons, students like Zuzanna are left wondering ‘why would Vitam get rid of the metal cutlery?’ Martijn Boersma, EUR Real Estate and Facilities team leader overviewing Vitam cafeterias, suggests redirecting this question back to the EUR community. “At the beginning of each semester, Vitam loses all their cutlery because people take it home. It’s very expensive for Vitam to replace the metal cutlery every time. The students, or whoever took it, cut their own fingers, cause now you have to buy cutlery if you want to eat your soup. Or bring your own”, he says. According to Michel Flaton, Vitam’s general manager, the company was losing between 5,000 to 6,000 euros each year just to replace the missing silverware.

Furthermore, in addition to the escalating prices of high-quality metal cutlery over the years, the Covid-19 pandemic caused substantial delays in shipping the utensils from China, reaching up to several weeks. “We could no longer meet the demand and replace the cutleries on time in our restaurants”, Flaton says.

No preventive measures

“I understand that it was a huge problem for Vitam, resulting in a loss of money, but I do not support such a change”, Ciepal responds. “They didn’t even consider other options. I would have done a campaign to promote not stealing the metal cutlery first, for example”.

Indeed, Flaton confirms that there were no preventive measures enforced as ‘it is very difficult to control’. However, Vitam did test other materials before reaching to the polypropylene in question, such as wood and bamboo. “I don’t know if you had tried eating soup from a wooden spoon before, or cutting meat with a wooden knife, but it’s not a pretty sight. We also tried bamboo but it’s not reusable and you have to grow and transport it from far away, which is not sustainable. We had people test the polypropylene cutleries over the summer and they could cut their steak and eat their soup normally, without a wooden taste in their mouth.”

Bestek_cutlery_sustainable_vies_horeca_campus_dec2023_2_Tyna Le
Vitam spends 5,000 to 6,000 euros each year to replace missing silverware. Image credit: Tyna Le

Eye-catching posters

Zuzanna would like to see more reuse and suggests making improved and eye-catching posters placed at the exit informing about the reusability of these new cutlery sets. Additionally, she also recommends placing sinks next to the trash bins to encourage people to clean their cutlery rather than disposing of it. “Cleaning it in the bathroom is not convenient, it’s not on the way. It’s much easier now for people to simply throw it away. You just have to think of those things in design.”

Nikolas suggests another system altogether. “Just like with the deposit return system with plastic bottles, I would go back to the metal cutlery and pay a small deposit for it, which you would get back only after returning it. They also do this at music festivals and bars with cups.”

‘Cleaner than clean’

Michel Flaton informs that as of January, Vitam will implement such a ‘statiegeld’ system, but keeping the same polypropylene material. “We are working on a system where people get some sort of pass or token after returning their cutlery set, cup or container, we are not really sure what that’s going to be yet.” The dirty ‘circularware’, as Vitam has labelled them, will then be sent to a separate cleaning company with electric vehicles and brought back to Vitam to be reused. “Everything will be cleaner than clean”, Flaton assures.

Despite Vitam cafeterias having dishwashers on campus, Flaton remarks that drying the cutlery is the biggest issue, as this new material doesn’t dry very easily and requires ‘a lot of manual labour’. “The company that we are going to use has extremely big dishwashers, about 18 meters, and 15 meters of that is a drying tunnel. It’s basically the size of a street, which wouldn’t fit on campus.”

‘Metal harder to recycle’

‘With polypropylene, you can easily melt it and make a new fork and knife out of it’

Vitam manager Michel Flaton

Nevertheless, given polypropylene’s proneness to breakage, as reported by the students, Nikolas still believes that going back to metal is a better solution. “This plastic will most likely break before you get to the hundredth time. I don’t understand what is the issue with having metal cutlery here, it is also reusable. In the long run it’s more sustainable.”

According to Flaton, metal cutlery has ‘all sorts of other stuff’, such as chromium, which makes it harder to recycle. “With polypropylene, you can easily melt it and make a new fork and knife out of it.” This is why he reminds students to hand in their broken cutlery to Vitam staff, who will make sure that it goes back to the company and recycle it into a new cutlery set.

“Of course, it’s a little bit more bendy than regular metal cutlery, but if you use it normally, you should be able to keep it together”. In any case, students and staff can share their remarks on the new cutleries by requesting a ‘feedback card’ at the cashier registers.

Until further notice, Flaton informs that the old metal cutlery will only be used for banqueting activities on campus such as lunches and buffets.

‘Bring your own is the future’

Regardless of the cutlery’s material, Boersma reminds students about a broader cultural shift taking place. “If we see the movement in the Netherlands and in the rest of the world of becoming more sustainable, the future is that you will have a cup and a cutlery set in your bag.” “People will have to get used to these kinds of systems because a lot of other companies will start working with this ‘bring-your-own’ principle”, Flaton adds.

However, the sustainability impact of these new cutlery sets is yet to be assessed. “The same way you can’t track how many times a plastic bag has been reused once it’s been purchased at the supermarket, right now, we just sell the cutlery sets and what happens after that is up to the costumer that bought it. But with this new procedure, we will actually get the stuff back so we can make sure it is being washed and reused the correct way”, Flaton assures.

Despite this ‘more sustainable’ approach, Flaton says that the ‘statiegeld’ system was not implemented from the beginning as Vitam did not want to follow the same fate as PackBack, whose reusable cup pilot programme was discontinued after a couple of months. “It takes a lot of preparation to do this. You have to implement stuff when you really know it will work. September is crazy busy on campus, for us and other vendors. So, there is no time to see if a project is working, it’s better to do that in January after the winter break”.

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