A Cup, is a Cup, is NOT a Cup
Rinse – reuse – repeat – It's a never ending cycle for reusable cups, but what about the environmental, social and economic impacts that process has on the Earth? It's a question the Georgia-Pacific Food Services Solutions group, which supplies disposable cups, plates, napkins and other products to quick-serve and full-service restaurants, set out to answer.
"Because people are actively involved in disposing of food service packaging, they feel as though they are negatively impacting the environment," says John Mulcahy, vice president – strategy and category effectiveness, GP Professional. "What they don't realize or take into account are the impacts of using detergent, water, heat and energy to wash and dry reusable products like coffee mugs and silverware."
Understanding the life cycle impacts
From the manufacturing process to delivery to customers to product use and ultimate disposal, each step in the life cycle of foodservice packaging has an impact on the environment. Recently, the Food Services Solutions group commissioned a third party to analyze a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)* on single use (disposable) cups versus reusable** cups to compare the impacts.
"The LCA allows us to understand the impact of using different products from beginning to end – including the impact on water, air and depletion of natural resources," Mulcahy says. "From this we can provide a detailed analysis that not only shows that disposable cups place less of a burden on the environment than reusables, but also explains how and why."
Customer attitudes changing
The 'how' and 'why' have become increasingly important as customers want to be better educated about the product choices available in order to make the best buying decisions.
In the past, customers were most interested in the hygiene, convenience and branding benefits that disposables offer, but the business is starting to see changes. "Customers don't want to trade off those benefits, but increasingly they want to be able to tell a sustainability story to their customers," says Andy Laughlin, director – sales, national accounts. "The LCA helps us go in and educate our customers by presenting scientific data to support the sustainability benefits of disposables. As their customers hold them accountable for making good environmental choices, they can share that they've switched to disposables, and also explain why."
GP continues to look for other ways to address the life cycle impacts of our products. The Food Services Solutions group has also done lab and field tests that demonstrate that polyethylene coated paper cups may be processed in commercial composting facilities.
*Review of LCA conducted by PE International.
**Reusable included an earthenware mug and porcelain cup and saucer.