In environmental Norway, your plate's not clean until it's gone

February 16, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER,NORWAY — LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- I ate a plate for lunch yesterday.

You had a bowl of soup or a salad or maybe a bagel.

I bought a sandwich at the Olympic deli and ate the plate it came on.

A blue plate special, literally.

I also ate half the sandwich, which was stale. The plate was better. It was the best darn plate I ever ate.

Especially when I dipped it in sugar, giving new meaning to the phrase "dessert tray."

No, I have not gone crackers up here in the cold, white north. I'm just doing the green thing: saving the environment, Olympic style.

I suppose I should explain myself before my office reads this and orders me to come home to "rest."

The plates are edible at these Games of Lillehammer. I'm serious. You take your waitress at her word here. When she asks you if you want the seafood platter, she really means the seafood platter.

Why, you can even take a hearty mouthful of knife, fork and spoon -- sort of the Lillehammer combo plate -- although, as Miss Manners warns, any time you nibble on your cutlery you run the risk of turning your teeth into Chiclets. (I think it was Miss Manners. Maybe it was Mike Tyson.)

Believe it or not, it's all part of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee's attempt to minimize the damage to the environment inflicted by the Games, a noble venture inspired by the ecological disaster that was Albertville in 1992.

The French basically put a jackhammer to their beautiful Savoie region, bulldozing acres of forest, building a highway across a wetlands and erecting a bobsled run cooled by poisonous gas. It was the first Winter Olympics with coughing as a medal event.

The outdoorsy Norwegians take their environment more seriously,and their concern is evident. (Of course, you can only do so much good when you're sending work crews and heavy machinery out to develop acres of relatively untouched mountain region, then importing tens of thousands of tourists in smog-spewing cars and buses. Greenpeace would hardly approve. But that's another story.)

Here, the bobsled run is composed of wood, not metal, and tucked into a forest, invisible from the road. The fabulous speed skating hall, the Vikingship, is already a Scandinavian landmark. The ice hockey rink blasted out of a mountain is a huge energy-saver.

As well, the Olympic torch burns "bio-gas" produced by rotting vegetation. A smoke-free environment is encouraged. Signs are made of recyclable cardboard. Officials even plan to send volunteers into the snowy woods to gather the bullets fired in the biathlon. (A likely story.)

Then someone, possibly the Norwegian Robin Williams, came up with the concept of eating plates for the greater good. It was a pretty good idea considering that plastic plates remain in eco-circulation forever. Olympic organizers were so excited that they contracted out to the hated Swedes, who had the necessary technology.

The plates are made of potato starch. They are a dull white color with a blue ring around the edge. They look like paper plates. They feel like paper plates.

They're just crispier.

"Try it with ketchup," said the cheerful Veronica behind the cash register. "Or maybe a pad of butter."

The man behind me in line had sprinkled salt on one a few days earlier.

"How was that?" I asked.

"No too taste," he said.

I sat down at a table, chipped off a few pieces of plate and ate them with several versions of "relish." Salt. Butter. Sugar.

They were crunchy. They were dry. I didn't taste a potato anywhere. I wasn't inspired to stand and sing, "Mmm-mmm, good."

I didn't quite finish, alas. Didn't quite, ah, clean my plate. Ordinarily, I couldn't admit that. You can't tell your kids you "wasted." But then, of course, the potato plate is biodegradable. It's not waste!

"How was it?" the cheerful Veronica asked when I rose.

"It was certainly an edible plate, all right," I said.

"You should try eating the knives and forks," she said, smiling.

There is simply no appropriate response to such a suggestion. "I can eat them, too?" I finally spluttered.

Yes, she explained, they're made of corn starch, and similarly biodegradable.

I picked a fork out of the bin. Tested it between my front teeth.

It felt like a plastic fork. Looked like a plastic fork. Tasted like a plastic fork.

I put it back. "It's just that I don't like corn," I explained.

Turning to leave, I stopped. "What are they going to do with the plates and spoons after the Games?" I asked.

The cheerful Veronica smiled. "I believe," she said, "that they are going to be used to feed pigs."

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