But even with the rise of disposables, a niche community of knife enthusiasts is thriving, and its members have opinions about the idea of a hardened wood knife.
Yao-Fen You, senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, said she is picky about her knives. She learned to use a cleaver around age 5 and now has about 10 kitchen knives, including a Miyabi Koh stainless steel blade, costs her about $130.
“I’m skeptical,” said Mrs. U of a wooden blade that contracts and expands. “That is often the problem with wooden 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, such as chopsticks, spoons and cutting boards, are widely used in kitchens, he said, and while they deteriorate, they can also last a long time. With proper maintenance, he said, he expects hardened wood utensils to last longer than natural wood objects. Hardened wooden blades can also be sharpened, just like steel blades, 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 environmental footprint. However, a typical knife uses less than a pound of stainless steel, according to Chris Pistorius, a co-director of the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research at Carnegie Mellon University. He said the climate impact of a steel blade is small and being recyclable is a big advantage.
To truly assess whether a hardened wood blade is better for the environment, a “life cycle assessment” would be needed, said Jesko von Windheim, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. It’s a “cradle to grave analysis” doing carbon accounting along the way, he said.
Sometimes products appear more environmentally friendly on the surface, but they may not be, depending on their manufacturing process and how they’re disposed of, he said.