In 1907, when Leo Baekeland came up with the first material truly considered a plastic, and named Bakelite, he couldn’t have known what a monster he was unleashing. We’re drowning in it. And wherever it crops up, plastic just seems to make the world worse (expect in the case of my giant Hello Kitty lamp, against which I won’t hear a bad word said). A commercial kitchen is no different to the rest of the world, in terms of pollution by plastic but for reasons we generally don’t think about.
The worst plastic items in restaurant kitchens are those which comprise the uniform. Locally (and in many other countries) the default fabric for chef’s jackets, pants and aprons is – madly enough - polyester. Pure plastic! Or at best poly-cotton. If you want the luxury of pure cotton, you need to pay a stack more. Plastic-wrapped arms (the sleeves are bizarrely wide at the cuff) hovering over naked flames, and plastic-wrapped legs in close proximity to boiling oil which could spill over said legs - that’s bonkers, right? As for regulation shoes - you guessed it - many (though admittedly not all) the standard kitchen shoes are made of synthetic polymers of one type or another.
Apart from the skin-melting aspect of polyester workwear, there’s the other delightful quality of synthetic garments, which is that they create a portable sauna. You’re sweating before you’ve picked up a knife. So, next time a chef gets grumpy when you ask for menu changes, consider it might just be a plastic-induced temper tantrum. Cotton T-shirts are much more practical and many kitchens are turning to these.
More plastic comes in the form of the hideous chopping boards which have bedevilled both industrial and domestic kitchens recently. Although the health department seems to prefer them, there’s no shred of evidence that they’re more hygienic than wood. In fact, some tests seem to show the opposite. Hygiene levels are far more dependent on thorough cleaning, the separation of different food types and kitchen workers washing their hands properly.
Speaking of hands, the most useless plastic items in commercial kitchens are disposable gloves. They symbolise hygiene but that’s as close as their relationship to cleanliness gets. The only things they actually protect are the hands inside them. The user can happily do anything from ear-scratching to picking up food off the floor with those gloves on and then carry on preparing food. Hygiene is about proper systems, and sticking to them. Gloves are good for protecting hands when cutting up vast amounts of chilli but that’s about it.
MORE PLASTIC MISCELLANY:
We’ve always been concerned about plastic’s ability to leach into our food and drink. As usual, the “truth” varies madly, depending on who’s paying for the research. Check out some less hysterical thoughts here.
For some cheering notes on cellophane, which is in fact plant-based cellulose, not plastic, read this.
Informed vegans hate plastic bags because they often contain animal fats. Have a look at Impact Solutions.