Friday, September 19, 2008

Reduce, reuse, reuse, reuse, reuse, reuse… recycle

Disposable cups and bottles are everywhere. If you’re in a city or in the suburbs, you can probably find some within a few yards of where you’re reading this. If you live in the country, you doubtless know of a heap of them (along with tires, part of an AC window unit, a broken fishing pole, and a pair of rabbit-ears) at the end of a local road. You've no doubt heard or read the caution that paper cups contribute to cutting trees and that these cups decompose to produce methane in landfills. You've also probably heard that polystyrene foam cups are a bad idea, because they're made from petroleum, they leach toxic chemicals into beverages, they're hard to recycle, and they don't biodegrade for a very, very long time. (Dunkin Donuts: Styrofoam is no good for beverage containers. Welcome to 1989.) Reusable cups can be a good solution to reduce demand for forest products and petroleum, while reducing the solid waste stream.
But be careful. Studies about the life cycle energy costs of reusable cups tell us that this is not a casual investment. That steel cup requires a good deal of energy to manufacture and a little on an ongoing basis to stay clean. One study (whose authors escape me, but rest assured that when I read it, it sounded terribly authoritative) suggests that a reusable steel cup needs around 300 uses to beat the energy usage of an analogous supply of single-use disposible cups. Not until after that magic number, are you enjoying a net-energy savings as compared to paper. If you’re prone to losing things or if the vicissitudes of fashion mean you won’t be caught dead with that steel cup in a year, stick with paper.
Be the solution. In the long run, that reusable cup does prevent waste and save and energy. (It also saves water over paper cups, but keep in mind that it’s saving water at a papermill somewhere, while using water in your neighborhood. This is important if you live somewhere with water issues.) If you have the moxie to invest in a reusable steel cup, E.R. Dunhill suggests a few tips to help you reach that lofty (and terribly authoritative) 300th use:
-Buy a quality cup. Before you purchase, make sure it seems solidly put together. Avoid plastics, because many of them degrade faster than you’d think, especially when filled with hot liquids. Besides, someone is bound to find something else toxic (phthalates, bisphenol A, partially deweaponized poisonium) in whatever polymer you choose. It’s also easier to recycle steel when that cup reaches the end of its usable life span, than a cup that could be made of several different plastics. Pay particular attention to the lid, any places where parts are joined or sealed, and any moving parts. Avoid anything with a spring-loaded closure or with a cumbersome twist-apart lid (for cleaning). These parts seem to fail a lot, and if they break, it’s almost impossible to replace them.
-Buy a container with simple aesthetics. That stencil may be hip now, but know the perils of the insidious hip life cycle: “Hip” downgrades to “popular” to “overdone” to “tacky” – then it gets better for a moment with “ironic” – then back to “tacky” and finally “what were you thinking?”. You can’t count on the possible graduation to “retro” or “vintage”. Instead, be gently boring, like E.R. Dunhill or be prepared to carry your tacky cup with pride.
-Clean your cup regularly. If you decide that your cup has cooties, you’ll stop using it. If your cup contracts cooties because you didn’t clean it regularly, get rid of the cooties and get over it.
-Bring your container with you (or, explain beverage-telekinesis* to me). Keep in mind that you can fill what is sold as a coffee cup with something other than coffee. This revelation makes your reusable cup even more useful.
-Estimate when the cup will reach 300. (No, don’t make a spreadsheet. Just use rough numbers.) If you use it instead of paper twice per week (about 100 times/year), you’ll need to have it at least 3 years. When you arrive upon your magic day, have a celebratory café au lait and blueberry bagel.

*Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill will accept and, as appropriate, publicly display a diagram or other rendering of beverage-telekinesis. Stick-figures, crayons, children’s work, and other tom-foolery are strongly encouraged. Scan it or photograph it and post a link in the comments.
Also, the author will address the other Rs, "repair", "repurpose", and "rebuy" in future posts.

Image: E.R. Dunhill's ca 2002 Einstein Brothers double-walled steel travel mug, used more than 300 times (Courtesy of the author).


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

I prefer porcelain -- and what's this about washing your coffee cup???? An occasional quick rinse is all that's necessary -- unless of course you share cups with several others which I suppose could be an energy saving and get to that 300 uses more quickly. BTW: I try to avoid poisonium at all costs.....

E. R. Dunhill said...

Ceramics are another great option, though I tend to recommend steel for anything that's going to travel with people. Ceramics have an added environmental benefit if you're simply looking for something to use in a single location, like home or office. You can buy locally-sourced ceramic cups much more easily than you can the steel variety. In fact, I know a guy who makes and fires his own using local clay. (I fear that I'm not nearly hardcore enough for that.) Steel containers, obviously, offer the benefit that they can stand being dropped, stuffed in a backpack, or otherwise abused in transit.
I think rinsing the cup counts as washing it, since this requires water and energy. And for those who tank up at their local coffee shop, a little hygene is most definitely warranted. Including your cup as part of a full load in a high efficiency dishwaser is a low-effort way to keep it in good shape, while conserving water and energy.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I know it's all in my head, but coffee just doesn't taste the same from a steel cup as from a ceramic cup.

Pat Jenkins said...

woouldn't it be best if we just shoot up with things to avoid the waste erd? oops that ain't going to work now we have "dirty" needles. this borders on crazy my man!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

What's crazy about reducing waste?

Chris Crawford said...

The subtleties of behavioral changes are interesting. In the bad old days, when most office workers got bad coffee in their offices, they used porcelain cups. Now that people insist upon gourmet coffee brewed at a specialist facility, they require covered cups to carry their coffee -- requiring a shift away from porcelain.

Me, I work at home and drink tea from a porcelain cup.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd again, it depends on how you define waste, and you my friend have "strict" definition!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

I've written here about needlessly putting trash into a landfill. Without reprinting dictionary or thesaurus entries, I think you'd find words like "trash", "garbage", "useless", or "unnecessary" associated with "waste" just about anywhere. The kind of paper trash I wrote about is frequently referred to as "municipal solid waste". The definition of waste I'm working with in this post is a straight-forward one.
To get back to my last question, why is it crazy to avoid throwing something away when you don't have to? Why is it a bad idea to avoid products that contain toxic chemicals? Why is suggesting that people follow-through bad advice?
Perhaps a better question still, why do you think it's a better idea to throw something away when there is a simple reusable alternative?
I'm making the point in this post that we should focus on what it is that we actually want in a transaction. If I buy a cup of coffee, what I really want is the coffee. If I can get the exact same cup of coffee while creating less waste, why should I create more waste?

Anonymous said...

Paper can only be recycled a couple fo times. But steel can be recycled over and over again.