In the House, compostable utensils replaced with old-fashioned plastic

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 12:00 AM

What do Congress's spoons say about its soul?

Right now, nothing flattering. A debate over the utensils in the House cafeterias has evolved into a parable of Capitol Hill's dysfunction - and each party's willingness to live up to its own stereotype.

When Democrats held the House, they introduced new cutlery made from corn. The good news: The utensils could be composted. The bad news: They cost more, did relatively little for the environment and warped when exposed to hot soup.

But Democratic leaders didn't kill the program. Instead, they waited until Republicans took over, then suggested they do it.

Republicans quickly obliged.

For now, they have introduced new utensils made - quite literally - out of oil and natural gas.

"You want to know the truth?" said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Administration Committee and the man who made the decision. "Almost universally, the message was received with joy."

The story of the House's cutlery reveals a hidden side of the U.S. Capitol complex: It is the seat of power, sure, but also its steam table. House cafeterias serve 240,000 meals a month to legislators, staffers and tourists.

And the place has a utensil problem. In the Capitol's workaholic atmosphere, about half of diners take their food to go - many headed back to their desks. If they were given metal forks and spoons, administrators say, many would never bring them back.

"You're going to have more drawers of dirty forks," said Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for Lungren's committee.

So, for years, the Capitol's utensils, plates and cups were made out of disposable Styrofoam and plastic. But that changed when Democrats took over the House in 2007: As part of a larger program to "Green the Capitol," they decreed that the cutlery should be composted along with the food. In late 2008, the Senate agreed.

The utensils felt like plastic, but they were actually made from a derivative of corn. The plates were paper. The hot food containers were made from sugar cane. After use, all of it was mashed into a wet pulp, then trucked 61 miles to Carroll County, Md.

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