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

By David A. Fahrenthold and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 5, 2011; A01

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.

There, it slowly turned to compost over six to eight months and was sold.

According to House administrators, it worked: In April 2010, a report said the cafeterias had become "models of sustainability" and celebrated more than 650 tons of waste diverted from landfills.

But in private, House officials were told of problems with the program, which cost $475,000 a year.

The whole point of the "Green the Capitol" initiative - which also included recycling office paper and installing more-efficient light bulbs - had been to save energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But an internal report from the House's inspector general found that composting dinnerware actually used more energy, because of the pulper and the hauling trucks.

And, the inspector general found, added energy use meant that there was only a small savings in emissions. All told, the equivalent of taking just a single car off the road. (Democrats dispute that finding.)

Down in the cafeterias, diners had another reason to be unhappy: The cutlery seemed to start composting early. Like in the middle of lunch.

The knives "could cut butter," said Rick Mulligan, 49, an elevator mechanic at the Capitol who was having lunch in a Senate cafeteria on Friday.

"Warm butter," added Justin Van Bavel, 30, a fellow mechanic.

"If you took them, you had to take about three or four of them" to replace those that broke or lost their shape, said Michael Schirippa, 62, an elevator operator. After five minutes in a cup of 180-degree soup, a spoon was weakened enough to bend.

When Republicans took the House in the fall, Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), the outgoing chairman of the House Administration Committee, recommended that the program be discontinued.

"Composting services in the National Capitol Region have not adequately matured to make this program a sustainable or cost efficient enterprise for the House," Brady and Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) wrote.

After Lungren took over, he did a new review and talked to staff members and legislators, who asked him to find cutlery that held their shape. He ordered the composting program in House cafeterias suspended.

"The thing's costing a half a million dollars, and it doesn't deliver as advertised," Lungren said. "I think I'm duty-bound to look at alternatives."

Now, Lungren says he's considering long-term solutions that still have environmental benefits. He's going to try washable metal utensils in the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria and try to police them better. And he's considering having all cafeteria trash burned in waste-to-energy plants instead of sent directly to landfills.

What about the spork, the ultimate symbol of efficiency in dining? "I wouldn't rule it out," a spokeswoman said.

In the meantime, Lungren said, Restaurant Associates, the catering firm that runs the House cafeterias, has chosen new utensils.

The firm picked the most "cost-effective" option: polystyrene, a plastic made from petroleum and natural gas. The forks are black plastic. The cups are white Styrofoam, which is basically the same kind of plastic but filled with air bubbles. They don't cost the House anything because they were covered under an existing contract with the caterers.

"Using compostable cups in the congressional cafeteria is not going to save the planet," said Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But, he said, using plastic increases demand for fossil fuels, and it does not break down in the environment. "This is a throwback to the 20th century," he said.

Now, Democrats - including some who suggested that Lungren make the change - have bashed him for how he did it. A spokesman for Brady said that "at no point has he supported or endorsed the current shift to Styrofoam." Democrats also criticized the new supplier of polystyrene cups, saying a top executive there was linked to the Koch brothers, who have given money to prominent GOP causes. House officials and the cup company denied that played a role in any decision.

What's left is a Capitol divided, even down to its spoons. Some have applauded the House's return to sturdier cutlery. But one staffer said Friday that she had crossed the Capitol to eat on the Senate side: Democrats are still in control there, and the forks are still compostable. There's also talk of a boycott.

"They went too far in bringing back the Styrofoam," said Schirippa, the elevator operator, who said he was worried about reports of a cancer risk (the plastics industry says the utensils and cups are safe).

Schirippa turned to a Capitol police officer next to him. The officer was drinking from one of the new cups. What did he think?

"It's a cup," the officer said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company