John from my office asked a good question the other day: why are paper cups so bad?
Actually, no paper cup is particularly bad. Certainly not as bad as a Hummer, or a gallon of corn ethanol to power it, or even the hamburger you eat while driving in the hummer and drinking your Coke.
And actually, probably not as bad as the Coke itself. But why are lowly paper cups so bad?
The first thought is that they are not easily recycled. This is only sort of true; good recycling processes can deal with food and with coatings like wax and plastic added to paper cups. However, most local recycling programs exclude items with food residue because of issues with animals as the recyclables are sitting on the curb, or waiting for processing. So even though most paper cups end up in landfills, let’s assume that the paper is recycled.
The real issue here is with one-time use, or disposable products. In the US, we use 130,000,000,000 (yes 130 Billion) disposable cups every year (260B in the world) — yikes! We use them once. They provide value for perhaps 15 minutes, yet they require significant resources to produce, transport, store, and then back again to add to our landfills (or if we’re assuming they can be recycled, back to the recycling plant.)
Now consider the Lincoln Memorial. (Editor’s Note: What made me think of this as an alternative is beyond any rational discourse — it’s just big, yet … enduring). Imagine the ten thousand people every day who visit (granted, many probably holding paper cups in their hands!) gaining value from this. Sure, it’s huge and its embedded (or embodied) energy must be huge, too. But it was built 85 years ago, and one would hope will last for centuries. That’s a lot of people getting a lot of value over a very long time.
And let’s say the visit to the Lincoln Memorial provides the same benefit as the drink in your paper cup (feel free to argue one way or the other on that) — the point is that things that last, and can be used over and over, eventually pay for themselves. A more practical comparison might be a reusable mug vs. a single-use container. I have a plastic cup that I drink water from at work. I got it in 2005, I think. I drink several cups of water a day. You really don’t need to do the math.
Our Disposable Culture
Paper cups are only one aspect of our throw-away culture. In my office, I have a graveyard of obsolete technology (iPods, cell phones, dead printers, stereo equipment and other odds and ends). I will find new homes for these, or get them to a Home Depot, or WholeFoods or Staples where they can be properly recycled, but none of these items is more than a few years old.
Our Litany Of Failed Products
We have a blender whose appearance (and cost) suggests very high quality. But the rubber part of its “all metal” drive sheared off. I was able to repair it for a nominal cost (and a less nominal amount of handyman skills). It shouldn’t have broken.
Our refrigerator is less than 10 years old and within several years the ice maker broke, and now (inexplicably and unrelated to the ice maker) we find pools of water on the floor.
We had to replace the shower curtain rod we bought a few years ago — it rusted.
Our fancy-pants KitchenAid food processor (which replaced the broken Cuisinart we got as a wedding present) now has a broken bowl and top, both of which can be replaced for a mere $179.
The plastic handle on our toaster fell off, and the LED lights don’t work.
The cheap, plastic end-caps on the stove handles have now all broken off … twice. We decided not to replace them a second time. The spout on our sink faucet failed after 6 years; we replaced it for $110.
The switch on our aquarium light failed after 3 weeks. We replaced it with the still-working light from the previous aquarium-top assembly whose plastic hinge broke off.
Our bathroom cabinet was painted with paint that peeled off in high humidity.
We replaced our broken seven-year-old AT&T answering machine and cordless phone with a Uniden alternative; one of the 3 remote handsets was DOA, the rest are cheap, cheap, cheap (and also, use old-fashioned vampire transformers, not switch-mode transformers, thus draw electricity continuously).
We try to buy high quality items. But even when we pay a premium for … something (?), things die an untimely death. Perhaps you recall planned obsolescence which was derided (yet practiced as an art form) when I was a boy. This cost, the cost of junk that is built so cheaply that we have little choice but to chuck it — this is a sign of our throwaway culture.
Products That Last for Generations (Not Just Months)
Yet … we have some furniture in our house that we’ll pass down to our children. Indeed, we have furniture, and even rugs, that my Mom gave me.
My wife laughed at me (when I was less enlightened) because I would plunk down several thousand dollars without a second thought for a new computer that would be useless in a couple years, but balk when she wanted to spend the same amount on a lovely table, or chairs, or other furniture or fixture that will live many times longer. (Which should by no means suggest that she doesn’t still laugh at me, but just for different things, like obsessive blogging, for example.)
I live in a house that was built 90 years ago. It’s not expensive or grand by any means. But with proper care and maintenance, it is now a modern, efficient house.
In the years after college, I started my career as a carpenter, working for builder who built the crap that now passes for housing — everything cheap and fast. I suspect these buildings have not withstood the test of time. Yet I also worked to renovate old houses in Maine — the carpenters there (and the customers) were far more interested in restoring not just the appearance, but the fundamental quality of the buildings. I know (because I see when I visit my parents) that these buildings endure.
Consumption vs. Embodied Energy
I have spent a lot of time and words on this blog talking about consumption: gasoline, electricity, natural gas and other sources of energy consumed as we use a product. However, the energy used to make, transport, dispose of, and even recycle a product is an equally significant component of our overall energy consumption (a.k.a. “footprint”).
But everything we buy has embodied energy — the energy required to make it, and even get rid of it. You hear a lot about some things being expensive to make, but not much about most stuff.
Yet those things that are “trivial”, like the paper cup, or grocery bag, we use scores of, or hundreds of, or thousands of (and billions of, as a nation) are the silent sucking sound you (don’t) hear.