There is No Shortage of Wicked Problems

by Idris Mootee

Just The Coffee Cup Alone Is A Hard One To Solve, Not For The Lack Of Trying.

by Idris Mootee

There is No Shortage of Wicked ProblemsSustainability and in particularly recycling is a very tricky topic. Just use coffee cup as an example, Today there are 58 billion disposable coffee cups being thrown away, un-recycled, around the world each year. Often least understood by consumers and even governments and large corporations.

There is a long held assumptions charging by the quantity to consumers can provide incentives to reduce consumption. The sad reality is the benefit of many program do not outweigh the costs. I think there can be more impact on the product and packaging design side to help with the problems. One most common challenge is coffee cups, which are used in all coffee shops and cafeterias. These paper coffee cups aren’t made from recycled paper. Mostly are manufactured using 100% bleached virgin paperboard.

There are many reasons why manufacturers don’t use recycled paper. First, in the US, FDA regulations are regulating paper pulp that is used in direct contact with food and beverages. Second, recycled paper isn’t strong enough to hold liquid. Starbucks experimented with a variety of coffee cups made with recycled paper with mixed results. Leaking is the main issue. In 2007, Starbucks has begun to use cups made from 10% post-consumer materials, while the remaining 90% of the cup is composed of new paper. It is not that they are not trying, it is a very difficult one to solve.

During the manufacturing process, paper cups are laminated with a plastic resin called polyethylene. This helps keep beverages warm and prevents them from absorbing liquids and leaking. The plastic also prevents the cup from being recycled. Every paper cup that is manufactured and coated with plastic resin ends up in a landfill. Yes the paper will decompose but this process releases methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

Reusable cup is a better idea? Not sure the economics of washing including water consumption for the purpose makes sense. Studies suggest that ceramic mug has the lowest material intensity but only if it has been used at least 50 times. If you use it for at least 250 times, then it is a good idea. We need to develop the habit of bring-our-own-cups. For disposable cups, forget about plastic cups as they can’t hold hot drinks. Let’s look at the cost. Styrofoam costs around 15-30 cents; paper cups cost 35-50 cents and100% compostable good paper cups costs over 80 cents, all depending on volume and quality.

Yes, paper is less expensive and is biodegradable and the consumption perception is that it is greener. But the paper production process can cause almost twice as much CO2 emissions and energy consumption as creating plastic or styrofoam products. But styrofoam is made from benzene and other chemicals that contribute to smog and global warming. It is not biodegradable and it never deteriorates. They are already banned in many cities in the US. This is probably the worst choice.

To help solve this wicked problem. there is the Betacup Challenge, an open-ended crowd-sourced competition for design of coffee cups that address the problem of disposable coffee cups. They received more than 200 submissions. Here is a link to the international entries section. Not sure if there are many good ideas submitted. This is not an easy one.

A few companies are now sponsoring the Betacup Challenge including Threadless which has launched a Betacup tie-in contest for the design of “an amazing tee inspired by coffee”. Starbucks is involved but not sure how committed not because they don’t believe in it, they know how hard it is and they are not betting on it. BTW there is no guarantee to implement any of the winning designs.

Don’t expect a viable solution to come out from this. The organizers behind the Betacup Challenge says that it will have been a success if it catalyzes conversation about bringing sustainable practices to the morning latte ritual. That’s is 100% true.

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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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