The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 14, 2007

Obsessing over cutting boards

In a comment a few days ago, Mazzajo wondered, “Perhaps I’m going OTT about this? If I intend to use a (new) item responsibly, then does it matter what the company does?? What do you think?” We can get a bit over the top sometimes in our quest to be as ecologically sensitive as possible. For example, we might drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out the “greenest” cutting board to buy to replace the skanky plastic mess of a cutting board we’re ready to relinquish. On the other hand, research can be fun. Maybe I obsessed a little too much over this decision or maybe obsessing is just part of what makes me me. In any case, here are the thoughts that led to this week’s cutting board decision:

Choice 1: A brand new Epicurean Cutting Surface like the professionals use. Pros: According to the company, “Epicurean Cutting Surfaces® are made with eco select paper from trees harvested under guidelines of the North America Sustainable Forestry Standards. 60% of the energy used to produce the raw material is from renewable energy.” The surfaces are knife-friendly and require no maintenance. Cons: The boards are “made up of layers of paper that are then soaked with phenolic resin and cured to create a solid sheet.” Not knowing what phenolic resin was, I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, it’s a combination of phenol (a toxic, colourless crystalline solid) and formaldehyde and is what the Bakelite, the very first plastic, was made from. Well, that didn’t sound terribly green to me.

Choice 2: A brand new cutting board made from a sustainable material like bamboo. Pros: Bamboo is rapidly-renewable. It restores itself in five years. Cons: Most of the bamboo cutting boards seem to come from China. Do I really want to use the energy to ship a cutting board from China? One I found made in the USA is a John Boos board that costs over $100! Not willing to pay that much for a freakin’ cutting board.

Choice 3: A brand new cutting board made from a local US-grown FSC-certified wood. These were harder to find than you’d imagine. I have searched and searched and can’t find any that are actually FSC-certified, although some claim to be made from well-managed forests. How can we know for sure?

Choice 4: A solid unfinished cutting board from an Amish workshop from “local sustainable wood.” Pros: the cutting board is made from one solid piece of wood, so no glues are needed to bond the pieces together. And it’s unfinished (“ready to be oiled in olive oil”), so there are no petroleum-based finishes. Cons: Whatever the wood is, a tree does have to be cut down. And the cutting board would have to be shipped to me from Ohio.

Choice 5: The board I finally chose was a Preserve cutting board made from Paperstone. It’s basically the Epicurean Cutting Surface, but instead of paper from new wood and phenolic resin, it’s made from 100% post-consumer recycled paper and non-petroleum-based resins. I bought it from Recycline’s booth at the Green Festival. Pros: No new trees died for this product. Yes, I’m sure it took more energy to make this cutting board than it did the solid carved Amish board, but I believe that if indeed we want our paper to be recycled here in the U.S., we should be supporting products made here from recycled materials and the companies who go into the business of recycling. So I chose to close that loop.

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5 years ago

My concern in paper products used for food preparation is the souce of the paper and the inks/dyes/etc used on them…example, we are told to wash our hands well after handling register receipts.

8 years ago

My concern is whether you can technical use any oil but mineral oil on wooden boards. Everything you read says other oils will go rancid.
Also, as a cook, bamboo (or glass), do not make good cutting boards as they are hard on knives.

10 years ago

Thanks for the useful review! Note that choices 5 & 6 (PaperStone) are also made from paper impregnated with a phenolic resin, just like the Epicurean boards:
“PaperStone is a sustainable composite made from 100% post-consumer recycled paper and PetroFree non-petroleum based phenolic resins” )
Phenolic resins are made from phenol and an aldehyde (usually formaldehyde; ). Phenol is usually derived from petroleum products or coal, but “PetroFree phenolic resins are derived from plant-based and industrial by-product sources” ). No mention of where the aldehyde comes from in the PetroFree process, but it is not usually from petroleum sources anyway, so probably it’s just the same as that used by other resin manufacturers.
The smell that some folks notice from products made with phenolic resins is likely residual formaldehyde that has not fully reacted to make the resin. As the manufacturer notes, this smell should dissipate after being washed a few times. While high levels of formaldehyde can be irritating, and extremely high levels can be toxic or carcinogenic, formaldehyde is an important component of many natural metabolic processes in the human body, and is readily metabolized. In fact, the natural synthesis and use of formaldehyde in the body is so high that it is difficult to detect any changes in blood levels of formaldehyde except in cases of very high external exposure ( Clinical Environmental Health and Toxic Exposures, )
Note that all these products are certified “Food Safe” by the NSF for prolonged contact between food and the product.
Obviously, if you are choosing to live by the precautionary principle, and avoid exposure to all plastics, you might want to avoid these products anyway. In which case, I hope that the information above about the PaperStone and EcoCulinary boards will be useful to you.

15 years ago now sells a “Reclaimed Corian Cutting Board”.

16 years ago

Costco (I believe) has durable, light plastic sheets which work swell as cutting boards. For that matter, we have a recycled chunk of marble which dulls the knives fairly quickly, but seems like a sensible alternative.

16 years ago

Hi Beth,
Just found your blog through the link on No Impact Man. What a challenge it is to try and seriously reduce or eliminate the use of plastic! There aren’t many options for some items.
I thought your analysis of what cutting board to buy was great. When you are trying to make the best environment decision there are so many factors to consider and you summarized them well.
Thanks, Kathy

terrible person
16 years ago

Beth, I’m glad you didn’t get us a cutting board treated with formaldehyde. It’s totally evil stuff — ask the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, whose FEMA trailers are full of the stuff, which is giving their kids asthma and nosebleeds.

It also makes me think of the frog I dissected in seventh grade science class.

It’s better to use casualdehyde, or naugahyde, though I’ve heard that naugs are becoming an endangered species.

16 years ago

I appreciate the information but seriously, cutting down a tree is not the end of the world. I would say the choice you made or the Amish board are pretty equally good. Another would have been to go to a local wood seller and buy a beautiful piece of hardwood and finish it yourself. Just think, carbon sequestering is good right!

16 years ago

I just found your blog from The Great Plastic Challenge group. I love your posts– you are an inspiration!

16 years ago

I’m so excited you just mentioned the Work Training Center. I’m from Chico (well, now Boston, but my parents still live there) and they are awesome! As a biochemist, after finding out the nasty components of the resin, I’m tempted to replace them. Then, of course, I’ll feel like I’m adding to the problem… but phenol and formaldehyde? Seriously? I’m constantly amazed/disappointed what companies are allowed to put into products, especially ones for food handling. I niavely assumed that the gov. would protect us from such things. I guess they’re only selectively big brother.

LOVE the blog however. I’m always so grateful for the intensive research time you put into these things.

16 years ago


I am SO GLAD you are obsessive! Without your obsessiveness, I wouldn’t know half of what I have learned about plastics!

16 years ago

It’s kinda cool seeing myself quoted in my favourite blog…!
That’s true about researching stuff before buying, it can be a fun challenge. I’m finding the retailers I contact with questions aren’t usually responsive, though. And when they do respond, it’s usually with statistics arguing the case against alternative materials (e.g. cotton and wood = ecologically bad in Australia). So when I do get answers I’m often more confused than before. The bonus is, I end up saving money ‘cos I don’t buy anything!! I’ve come to the conclusion I have to rely on my own research and be satisfied with making the best choice I can at the time …

Teresa Kennett
16 years ago

Hey Beth! Just wanted you to know that I and my family (to whom I have forwarded your blog) have been reading for quite awhile and you have sparked many interesting and (hopefully) fruitful conversations. My dad (80 yrs) has quite taken to you and the blog. My sister “subscribed” and reads more entries than I do. I have the exact cutting board you have pictured and have decided to keep using it until either it –or I — are ready for whatever morgue we qualify for. Thank you for your amazing dedication. You are inspiring! Love, Teresa