Cups make my head hurt. I am not allergic to them or anything like that, it’s just that the permutations around disposable cups versus china cups makes it really hard to choose the best path for the business and the environment and, in effect, highlights many of the challenges we face trying to make business sustainable. Let me explain…
We have a large office in Paris with 1,200 right thinking people who want to do the right thing by the environment. They also have a very healthy coffee habit and drink at least two cups per person every day, sometimes more. So that’s a lot of cups. Initially, we used standard disposable cups as, logistically, it was the most efficient way to ensure everyone could get a coffee as soon as they wanted. As soon as we understood that these disposable cups were not as readily recyclable as everyone believed, we invested in VegWare compostable cups (other brands are available) to reduce the environmental impact.
This was a wonderful solution. Right up to the point I realised that eco-friendly cups allowed people to use more of them, guilt free. This has two major impacts. One, we are sending more stuff to landfill that breaks down and makes methane, a greenhouse gas, so not the environmental win we were hoping for. Two, it was costing us a fortune!
So then we took a look at providing china cups for people to use because it must be better not to throw stuff away, right? Oh my days! What a can of worms!
So, how many cups do you need per head to ensure everyone gets one on demand? We thought at least two. Then we had to work out how we collect them from the desks. Call me a cynic, but in 20 years of this job, I have never succeeded in making people bring their own cups back to the kitchen, let alone put them in a dishwasher. Not only that, but this office is full of very curious people. These guys would happily see how many new forms of life might be created in a dirty coffee cup by leaving it on the desk for weeks, or how many cups they could collect on their desk in a month. So there is no option but getting someone to collect them – or in a six-storey building, a number of people to collect them.
So, let’s think about this…
Six floors with 200 people on the floor. That’s 400 cups per floor.
A trolley can hold 100 cups. That’s four tours of each 27,000 sq ft floor.
A standard dishwasher can hold 45 cups. That’s nine full cycles of the dish washer per floor.
A fast cycle takes about 50 minutes, therefore taking up most of the working day to wash all cups on a floor once.
That means one person per floor just managing cups. Quite an expense.
All that is before we consider the environmental overhead in the original manufacture of china versus compostable, the use of water, bleach and soaps in the cleaning process versus bio-degrading cups in landfill, and the original manufacturing impact of building a dishwasher to actually do the wash.
A deeply knotty problem with no obvious environmental or business win. We are all under pressure socially and from our staff to reduce the impact our businesses have on the planet and yet, when one looks more closely into some of the obvious solutions, the results of these efforts are less than compelling.
I, for one, am learning that it takes way more effort than I originally thought if you wish to be truly impactful. For example, it is pointless separating out food waste unless that waste is going to go to a specialist composting centre where the methane can be captured and used to create electricity. If it’s just going to end up in landfill because your landlord considers food waste as part of general rubbish, or the local authorities do not have access to such a facility, then there is no positive impact. We need to be putting the effort into influencing the entire chain, from supply to waste management, and not just thinking that, because we have food bins, we have it nailed.
Just as with cups, you simply cannot say that china is best because we don’t throw it away – because the impact on water supplies and sulphate pollution from the soaps may well offset the impact of disposables. So, we need to be careful where we put our efforts, not assume all positive actions have a positive outcome and learn to influence change upstream and downstream of the point of use if we truly want to have an impact.
I think we are still learning how to do that. Maybe we should get a coffee and talk about it further.