How Bad are Paper Cups?

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

bird of paradiseI get it. So many handsome paper cups to Instagram, and so much to feel uneasy about. Let's talk about it.

The majority of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from packaging come from raw materials and processing. Imagine a typical coffee cup with me - made of paper and lined with a very thin sheet of plastic, manufactured in China and waiting expectantly to be picked up at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas.

About 87% of the emissions from this cup came from the paper and printing processes used to make the cup; paper manufacturing is one of the most electricity-intensive industries in the world (sigh). Roughly 6% of emissions came from transporting the cup via container ship all the way from Shenzhen to California, versus 5% to get it from California to Texas via truck (only 1/6th of the distance).  This shows that trucking is a far more energy-intensive mode of transportation than container ship, and that the origin country of a paper cup doesn't affect its carbon footprint nearly as much as the material used, or whether the cup is of the single wall or double wall variety.

At Georgette, 90% of the cups we make come from China. For two reasons. First, cup factories in China offer lower minimum order quantities than most North American factories, which means small and medium businesses don't have much choice. Second, Chinese cups cost less than North American, due to lower labor costs (this more than offsets the extra transportation costs). In our experience, most businesses prefer to pay less than purchase North American-made. This is changing, though - which I find hopeful. (Paper cup factories of Canada and the US: take note. Also, call me. We want to support you). 

Our China-made cups travel via container ship to British Columbia or California, and are then either shipped via truck direct to their final destination, or taken by train to Toronto, then delivered by truck. We're working on minimizing the amount of train and truck transport we use by diversifying transport routes and finding new, closer-to-final-destination factories.

Of course, it's incredibly important to consider other factors when deciding where you would like your packaging made. Supporting local factories (and jobs) is just as important to a community as supporting your local coffee shop.

Approximately 98% of our boxes are made in Ontario, Canada. The box manufacturing industry is strong and vertically integrated in Canada, due to the forestry industry. Once they sashay off the production line, our boxes are mostly transported by truck. Occasionally we need to express ship items, in the case of extreme packaging emergencies. This is done via plane, the most energy-intensive mode of all.

Once you've packed up a product, the total amount of emissions the packaging contributes to that item depends on what's in the box / bag / cup; for a carton of eggs, it's about 5%.  For a cup of tea with milk, the packaging contribution is closer to 65%.  It really depends on the product's own emissions, and how 'overpackaged' that item tends to be.  For instance, a cup's worth of tea with milk (cup and all) produces 165g of CO2, whereas a dairy milk latte is closer to 450g.  By swapping dairy for cleverly branded, low impact oat milk, you can reduce a latte's CO2 emissions by 65%.

Now if you really want to be good, I suggest glamping in the back garden for your next holiday. A return flight from Toronto to Miami produces the same CO2 as 2,332 lattes.