But even with the rise of disposable utensils, a niche community of knife enthusiasts is flourishing, and its members have opinions about the idea of a hardened wood knife.
Yao-Fen You, a senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, said she is picky about her knives. She learned how to use a cleaver around the age of 5 and now owns about 10 kitchen knives, one of them a Miyabi Koh stainless steel knife, costing her about $130.
“I am skeptical,” Ms. You said of a knife made of wood, which contracts and expands. “That tends to be the problem with wood handles. I like the feel of them, but they will deteriorate over time.”
Dr. Li, the University of Maryland professor who helped create the hardened wood, has heard such concerns. Natural wood utensils, like chopsticks, spoons and cutting boards, are widely used in kitchens, he said, and while they do degrade, they can also last a long time. With proper maintenance, he said, he expects hardened wood utensils to last longer than natural wood items. Hardened wood knives can also be resharpened just like steel knives, he said.
Which is better for the environment?
Dr. Li argued that the production of metal and alloy-based hard materials is energy intensive and leads to a heavy carbon footprint. However, a typical knife uses less than a pound of stainless steel, according to Chris Pistorius, a co-director at the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research at Carnegie Mellon University. He said a steel knife’s climate impact was tiny, and its ability to be recycled was a major advantage.
To really assess if a hardened wood knife is better for the environment would require a “life-cycle analysis,” said Jesko von Windheim, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. It’s a “cradle-to-grave analysis” that conducts carbon accounting along the way, he said.
Sometimes products appear more environmentally sustainable on the surface but may not actually be, depending on their production process and how they’re disposed of, he said.