Thursday, March 8, 2012

When passion takes over logic: Mugs vs. disposable cups

By Yelena Novikova

CSR and sustainability professionals are frequently prepared to go the extra mile when designing a solution. It is taken as a given that they have to, if the company aspires to be best in class. Yet, do we really have to? Or can the determination to be CSR-innovative make it easier to miss obvious, simple and more functional solutions?

These were the things I was thinking about sitting at a lecture hosted last June by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). One highly respected CSR manager was talking about his experience of dealing with the issue of coffee cups when he worked in Italy. Seeing that employees drank impressive amounts of coffee (it being Italy after all!) and hence generated mountains of plastic-cup waste, he decided to do something about it.

The obvious solution was to have a policy that everyone must use a ceramic mug. However, the speaker’s research concluded that it took more energy to produce and continuously wash a ceramic mug than it did to produce a disposable paper-cup option that only requires one initial wash. However, Martin Hocking’s energy-based evaluation of reusable and disposable cups shows the reusable cup would use less energy than the plastic one after only 39 uses/washes with an efficient dishwasher [1].

I believe the company in question ended up using polystyrene foam cups, which was the logical - and yet not instantly obvious - solution. Here is some of the statistical evidence on the matter [1]:

  • It takes 198 kj of energy to produce polystyrene foam disposable against 278 kj of primary energy required for single wash in a low energy efficiency countries; hence, there is no point at which a ceramic cup is preferable;
  • Also, while ceramic mugs recover practically no energy during the recycling process, polystyrene foam and paper-cup alternatives recover 76 kj and 166 kj of energy per unit respectively.

The answer seems clear-cut. Nevertheless, digging a little deeper suggests a more ambiguous conclusion. For instance, since energy efficiency of dishwashers plays a pivotal role in Hocking’s calculations - and the Energy Label for electrical appliances has been available in Europe as early as 1995 [2] - perhaps it is more a case of choosing the right dishwasher than the right mug.

Furthermore, a recent study found that the average ceramic mug is used over 2,000 times [3]. That is four times the 500 uses that Hocking suggests as the threshold beyond which its high fabrication energy becomes unimportant [1]. We can conclude, therefore, that in a corporate environment, ceramic mugs may very well be an energy sustainable solution, not to mention all the aesthetic, cultural and recycling-related benefits it may also offer.

The point really is not to champion to cause of ceramic mugs, but to challenge the idea that CSR pioneers and innovators always have to dig deep. Sometimes the intuitively simplest answers are also the correct ones. And sometimes digging deeper just means finding the roots.

[1] Martin Hocking, “Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy-based Evaluation”, Environmental Management Vol. 18, No. 6, p. 894, 896, 899