Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

March 5, 2009

Which Uses More Energy: Paper Cup or Lincoln Memorial?

Category: Economics,Sustainability,Tips – Tom Harrison – 10:52 pm

paper_cuplincoln_memorialJohn 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.


  1. This is very true. I moved to Japan 5 years ago, and nearly all of the appliances I have (of which most were obtained second-hand) are still up and running. On the other hand, when I moved to my current apartment, I threw away tons of junk that I’d acquired. Some of which I hardly used. And if I move again this year, looking around now I’ll throw away a similar amount of crap.

    It ain’t easy to live Spartan.

    Comment by Jeremy — March 9, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  2. While it is all interesting to say that paper cups waste energy…what about the plastic cups? You reuse it a couple of times. Big deal. The sales for disposable was “health and cleanliness” as filth grows on old cups.
    Manufacturers in NA figured out long ago that making a product last forever did not keep them in business. So they had to make it wear out within a reasonable time period(acceptable to the consumer and acceptable to the producer). There was no standard.
    Also make the cars different every year so that perfectly good parts from older models will not fit new models.
    So it got accepted that cars start leaking oil within a year, and started rattling. Same thought for appliances.

    When VolksWagen hit the highway, there was a different mentality. It lasted and did not leak or break down as soon. Europeans have a totally different mentality. It had to last. And many parts interchangeable.

    Older products lasted as companies started up. They had to prove themselves with a good product(a good product does not fail)in order to establish a name for themselves.
    Then quality died as companies got bigger and needed to sell more product.
    I got an electric wall clock from “Westclock” sitting on the kitchen wall..still keeps perfect time and is now 55 years old(sure it made a noise way back when 30 years ago, but a little Mazola corn oil dripped in the back by my mom and it quieted the noise and kept on going. Perfect time.
    Same can be said for the toaster. Works better than new ones. After 50 years.
    Buy one nowadays, if you can and 2 or maybe 4 years and it is garbage because it is worn out. Unfixable.
    Big kitchen appliances (GE)still running fine after 33 years. I doubt if that will be the case with newer higher priced models.

    Going green does not mean “just” buying green….it means first cut down on the amount you buy – “asking yourself” do I really need this and do I need it new?
    I got 4 vacuum cleaners. (all hand me downs). They will outlive me because I can only suck so much. They are really energy efficient because most of the time they are off.

    Same goes for the CFL’s lights.
    I do not leave a light burning 24/7 just because I can.
    The light is on “when I need it” and off the rest of the time.
    The proper way to get the most life out of a CFL light bulb is to have it on for 3 hours before turning it off. So no good in a hallway, or bathroom….or any other room cept maybe the living room or computer room. Other lights are off after 30 minutes.

    I am not in a rush for an energy efficient hot water tank(but mine is 33 years old) the time will come for a replacement any day) That is when you buy a “green tank”.

    It is not like “we consumers” had a choice. It was what was available on the marketplace at the time. I do not want to buy another water tank for I know they will only guarantee them for 5 years(instead of 25yrs. like on my old tank)
    Same story for the furnace. Mine is 60% efficient(I guess). But 60% of a low amount (as the heat is never in excess(only 60-70 degrees). I wear a sweater and long pants. No biggy. And I turn down the heat every night. Am I really going to save with a 95% efficient furnace? How long before it “pays for itself”? 40 years? At the rate I consume, probably. (and why could they not build them back in the 70’s?)

    Because they want to sell product.

    What choice do we consumers have? And we have to pay extra for using less.(and now the new charge of paying to get rid of it(recycling costs).

    So they still get us and make money doing it and end up getting half the product back.

    Products are advertized by: “not the fact that they now last longer, but by the fact that they can be thrown into recycling and it is 100% recyclable.”
    Essentially “throw your money away directly into the dump.” Same thought process.
    There is no slow down in production or the use of less energy by manufacturers making better products. They make different crap products and get extra money for that from government.

    Comment by Bjurn Friedelmanimoss — March 14, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  3. Bjurn — I thing we’re saying the same thing. Paper, plastic, “high” quality or low, things are not engineered to last. The allure of “convenience” has made us think we need all these things.

    We don’t … in fact we need the absence of them.


    Comment by Tom Harrison — March 15, 2009 @ 11:34 am

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