Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Green Living Challenge #3: Petrochemicals in Your Coffee Cup

Since I posted about reduce/reuse/recycle yesterday, I thought I'd keep with that theme and chalk up another 5 points in Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment's Green Living Challenge ...

Use a reusable mug when purchasing coffee or tea

From EcoCupInfo.com:

Every year, Americans drink more than 100 billion cups of coffee. Of those, 14.4 billion are served in disposable paper cups— enough to wrap the earth 55 times if placed end-to-end! Those paper cups contain a plastic lining made from a petrochemical that would produce enough energy to heat 8,300 homes. That’s a town the size of Newtown, Connecticut.
I'm willing to bet that if they were called petrochemical cups instead of paper cups, a lot more people would bring their own travel mugs. I've always had a travel mug or two in the cabinet, but I usually only break them out when I'm bringing a big cup of coffee at the start of a long drive.

Part of the reason this hasn't registered with me until now is that I rarely buy brewed coffee. I have a coffee-maker at work, and I'm religious about making it there, bringing in cream and sugar, etc. Not to get all coffeenerdness, but I've always preferred a strong cup of drip coffee to a cappuccino/latte/whatever anyway, and when the lattes are $4 compared with $10 for an entire pound of coffee beans, it's an easy choice.

But I watch co-workers go out for coffee several times a day, coming back with a new, white, bleached paper cup every time. Is coffee really that hard to wash off of a cup? There's even a dishwasher in the office! Keep a couple of travel mugs handy and you'll never have to lift a sponge!

OK, I suppose ranting won't win any converts, but here's something that might. The Daily Grind location at N. Quincy and N. Fairfax in Ballston is offering special Green Living Challenge travel mugs. At $10, they're cheaper than Starbucks travel mugs, and Daily Grind will give you refills for just $1. Get it refilled every day for two weeks and you've made your money back.

So now I have the tools (shiny new travel mug), the motivation (of completing the challenge), and the desire (Daily Grind makes a nice strong Guatemalan) to complete another step of the challenge! You can track my progress here.

Points for this action: 5

Total points to date: 45

Points needed to complete Green Living Challenge: 100


Anonymous said...

Word to travel mugs! My favorite is from Common Grounds (replaced by Murky). I'm signing up for this challenge today :)

Anonymous said...

The "petrochemical" you refer to is polyethylene. The average coating on a paper cup is about 1/10,000 of an inch. If you will let me skip the math, this means that each cup has about 0.05 grams of polyethylene. Since each gram of ethylene has about 54 kJoules of energy, the amount of energy in the paper cup is about 2.7 kJ.

On the other hand, it takes about 8 megaJoules to heat the water and run a dishwasher for each cycle. So even if you wash 20 cups a cycle and only wash the cup once for every 5 cups of coffee, you are using an average of 80kJ of energy per cup just to keep that cup clean. That is over 25 times as much energy as is in the plastic liner in the cup.

Hmmmm. Maybe there is a little bit more to consider.

The Green Miles said...

I wash my cups by hand because the aforementioned dishwasher looks like it came along at about the same time as The Brady Bunch and I wouldn't trust it to successfully wet a paper bag.

But you're right -- there IS more to consider. If you're going to do the math, is there no energy in the cup's paper? Its plastic lid? Its warming sleeve thingy? The factory that made all of the above?

What about the boxes and plastic sleeves they arrived at the coffee shop in? Or the trucks and trains that shipped the cups? The cost of hauling the cups away and dumping them in a landfill?

Anonymous said...

My argument for using a reusable coffee mug is simply the fact that (maybe it was when I started dating Miles) I imagine my trash at the landfill. I actually feel guilty about an item I am using, that has a reusable option, taking up space in a landfill somewhere that I don't see but is most definitely getting larger and larger. Maybe that is garbage neurosis, but it is easily remedied by purchasing a travel mug that I can use forever. Phew.

The Green Miles said...

Sneak preview of future blog post -- I'm reading a book called "Lean and Green: Profit for Your Workplace and the Environment" and one of my favorite stories so far is that a company called Celestica has started labeling its trash cans "LANDFILL." Now that's truth in advertising.

Googla Monster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Googla Monster said...

How can we get this message to the merchants in Shirlington? I think the ones that sell coffee should give a small discount to customers that bring in their own mugs. I'm bothered by the increase in trash. Props to Bear Rock Cafe who sell "bottomless" cups of coffee in ceramic mugs. Let's ask all the coffee sellers to encourage customers to BYOM (bring your own mug).

Brooke said...

Even worse are the places that still distribute coffee in styrofoam cups. Does it really cost that much more to order post consumer recycled paper cups?

Anonymous said...


Why do you think washing by hand is more efficient than washing by machine? It may be if you turn off the water between steps, but if you let the water run as you soap and scrub, probably not.

More importantly, if I recall correctly, the temperature difference between hand and machine washing can be the difference between sanitary and germ-laden. One recent survey found that most home water heaters were not set at a temperature high enough to kill e.coli bacteria. Since many dishwashers have supplemental water heaters, they boost the water temperature to sanitize.

As to landfills, that is a different matter all together. But thee is hope. Just today the NY Times reported that a professor at Polytechnic University in Brookly has developed a plastic that can be made from plant oils and turned into biodiesel after use.


A few weeks back, a Canadian firm announced it had developed a new additive for foamed polystyrene (don't say "Styrofoam", that is a trademarked brandname) that will allow cups, etc to be used and then biodegrade in landfills within 3 years. I look forward to that becoming available.

As for post consumer recyclable paper, there are a lot or resources that go into converting paper back to pulp to re-form the paper. While it does save the trees, you have consequences due to the processing chemicals used in the pulping process.

The bottom line, to quote my favorite science fiction writer, is "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Each option has environmental costs. The truth is we have not paid enough attention to the environment for way too long. But sometimes the obvious "solutions" have hidden costs.

The Green Miles said...

While I certainly agree that technological advancements are making paper and plastic more environmentally friendly, I would make the case that it's always better to use a reusable mug than a disposable cup.

And I don't wash my cups by hand because I consider it more environmentally friendly, I do it because the dishwasher is old and doesn't get things very clean, and because my impatience trumps my laziness. It takes 20 seconds to wash the mug by hand as opposed to an hour in the dishwasher.