Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Billions Served…My Cup Runneth Over!

This question was recently proposed to me:

I need help with information on recycleable paper cups. Our [organization] owns a large supply of ceramic cups, but members don't like washing dishes and would like to promote recycled content cups as an alternative. Doesn't sound good to me from the point of view of waste.

This request mixes several questions together, so I will attempt to untangle them. First the issue of the “recyclable” cup. Most hot beverage cups made from paper are coated with a plastic substance such as polyethylene to provide a barrier to prevent the liquid from seeping through. This plastic coating usually makes such cups unrecyclable, as plastic is a contaminant in typical recycling systems. Additionally, food and grease- tainted paper is not desirable to have in pulping systems that recycle recovered paper. So those of you who are throwing the used pizza boxes in the recycling bin -- good intentions, but it’s not really helping out. Some of that food-contaminated paper can be composted, but not the plastic coated (polyethylene and such) cups and plates.

International Paper Company, in conjunction with Green Mountain Coffee Company, has developed a hot beverage cup that is coated with a corn-based barrier that can be composted…“under the right conditions”. This compostable paper cup is marketed under the brand name “Ecotainer”.

An amazing fact was brought out in news releases for the Ecotainer cup. Americans go through 15 billion -- yes “B,” billion -- disposable hot beverage cups per year. And market projections are to reach 23 billion disposable cups per year by the year 2010!

Now not all disposable cups are paper-based; there are, for example, the polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups, such as the 800 million used by Dunkin Donuts outlets each year.

Now to the issue of recycled content.

Starbucks was reported to be using in excess of 1.7 billion paper cups per year. To their credit, Starbucks has started to use 10% postconsumer recycled content in their cups. This is possible because Starbucks’ cups contain some deinked recycled kraft pulp, the same type of pulp used in printing & writing paper, bath tissue, paper towels and some packaging material. Unfortunately, there is only about 1.6 million tons of deinked kraft pulp available in North America -- which is a very small portion compared to the 30 million or more tons of timber pulp that just these few sectors of the paper market require. The current ability to create more beverage cups with recycled content is limited considering all the copy paper, bath tissue and other grades of paper that also seek to use recycled kraft fiber.

So for this organization, the question becomes, are there recycled content paper coffee cups they can obtain? Well, if you are Starbucks, the answer is yes. For anyone else, right now they are not on the shelf. The type of paper these cups use is the same type of paperboard that milk cartons use (SBS), which right now is not geared to utilize recycled paper.

However, Starbucks has proved it can be done. But we need more recycled kraft pulp capacity in North America to be able to expand the market.

But really, it begs the question of the need for a disposable cup in a situation such as this. The organization already has a supply of durable coffee cups that would only have to be washed. Similar to the debate of cloth vs. disposable diapers, there certainly are situations where convenience is an issue. So, while reports state that more than 60% of all coffee is brewed at home where we can easily use a ceramic coffee cup, we still go through an astounding 15 billion disposable cups per year, which again is expected to increase by 63% in the next few years.

Well slap my lowfat-decaf-soy-chai-latte drinkin’ self if I add to that!

We can all look for techno-fixes; buy carbon energy offsets and other feel good alternatives to solve the problems of global warming, pollution and unsustainable consumption. Or, maybe we should just start with simple ideas such as put forward by Jimmy Carter: “put a sweater on”. So, in this case, wash the cups…and put a smile on while you do it.