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Green Practice: Coffee to go?

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.86


As coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity and Australia’s favourite morning beverage, one should always remember: please drink responsibly.

“Grabbing a coffee” has become a popular pastime and one that is taken seriously in Melbourne.

As a lawyer, you may indulge in a takeaway coffee to bump up productivity in those six-minute units, to cope with gruelling 14-hour deal negotiations or to avoid your boss when you haven’t quite finished that research memo. And if your firm is like most, there will be established coffee clubs, a flood of morning coffee invitations and frequent coffee breaks as the day wears on.

Unfortunately, if your firm is like most, there will also be bins brimming over with disposable cups at the end of each day.

Disposable v reusable: lifecycle analysis
Being sustainable makes our daily choices slightly more complex.

Selecting a cup seems like a simple decision, but like coffee it’s a subject that’s dark and hard to see through to the bottom. Evaluating the environmental impact of your choice of cup can be done with a lifecycle analysis.

A lifecycle analysis is a comparative evaluation method that includes all the activities and materials that go into the production, use and disposal of a product.

Disposable cups
Most disposable cups are manufactured using bleached virgin paperboard which requires large quantities of water, energy and trees.

After being harvested, pulped, washed and processed, the paper is then coated with thin plastic and pressed into shape. The plastic makes the cup water-tight, but it also condemns it to landfill. 1

Once disposed of, the paper decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

The US EPA reported that 44.9 million tonnes of paper products were taken to landfills in 2005 – and almost one million tonnes of this was made up of disposable cups. 2

Reusable cups
The major environmental impact of reusable cups occurs at the time of production.

Stainless steel cups require the steel and chromium to be mined and refined which uses water and energy and releases greenhouse gases. Ceramic cups are made of clay and require a small amount of energy to heat in a kiln. The production of ceramic uses less water than stainless steel and releases only around 0.0065g of greenhouse gases per gram.

And the winning cup is . . .

As every lawyer says, when facing a tricky question, “it depends”.

How the individual uses the reusable or disposable cup has a direct consequence on the environmental impact. As discussed above, manufacturing reusable cups creates a bigger initial environmental impact than manufacturing disposable cups. However, that impact lessens over time as the cup is reused. Each reusable cup has a point at which it becomes more environmentally friendly than a disposable cup. 

Studies vary in their results as to where this point is, depending on factors such as transportation, source of materials and the resources used in washing.

A University of Victoria study concluded that a glass cup breaks even with a paper cup after 15 uses, a plastic cup after 17 uses and a ceramic cup after 39 uses. 3

As reusable cups are generally made for 3000 uses, the positive environmental impact of reusable cups can be huge. 4

Show off your environmental savvy
Given that annual coffee consumption in Australia is at 2.4kg per person and rising, now is a good time to implement sustainable takeaway practices. No one predicted the popularity of reusable green bags, but today their widespread use is proof that people like to be environmentally responsible.

Reusable coffee cups have the same potential to reduce landfill and alter the attitudes of consumers.

Providing branded reusable coffee cups in the office is an excellent way to encourage staff to be more sustainable as well as advertising your firm’s green credentials.

With environmental issues becoming increasingly pertinent both as a legal subject and in terms of corporate citizenry, branded coffee cups are an easy method for your firm to market its leadership in environmental issues.

Cafes are also doing their bit for sustainability and many will offer a discount (albeit modest) to customers who bring their own cup.

But why stop when you’re on a roll? Team your reusable cup with locally sourced organic and fair trade coffee. The majority of our coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar come from places where land management and labour practices are less than ideal.

Going the extra step with fair trade promotes local sustainability and improved terms of trade for farmers and workers. Many fairly traded goods are also organic, so keep an eye out for the logo at your local coffee shops.

Paper waste

When you use one paper cup a day for a year you create about 10.5kg of waste.

Disposable paper cups:

  • cannot be recycled;
  • release methane gas as they decompose; and
  • consume a large volume of water in production.

JULIE FRASER is Young Lawyers’ Section (YLS) vice-president and Community Issues Committee co-chair. This column is coordinated by the LIV YLS. For more information on the YLS, see http://www.liv.asn.au/members/sections/younglawyers.

1. Paper cups vary in type of plastic or wax coating. Due to the use of different materials, recyclers are unable to set processes to recycle all cups as the plastic can contaminate both the paper and the plastic recycling and damage the processing machinery.

2. “Municipal solid waste in the US: 2005 facts and figures”, US Environmental Protection Agency, October 2006. See http://www.epa.gov.

3. Institute for Lifecycle Energy Analysis, University of Victoria, 1994.

4. A new reusable cup, the “KeepCup”, has been developed and a lifecycle analysis is pending. Preliminary data shows that a KeepCup breaks even in terms of energy with a disposable paper cup after 17 uses. See http://www.keepcup.com.au for more information.

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