Published: 04 August 2006
Corn-based coffee cups would create an "eco-friendly" choice for consumers shuddering at the thought of mountains of trash created by the 39 billion disposable paper and polystyrene coffee cups American throw away every year. International Paper estimates the discarded 14.4 billion conventional paper coffee cups alone, put together end-to-end, would circle the earth 55 times. That"s a lot of trash entering the country"s already overburdened landfills. Considering the United States" dependence on foreign oil, if coffee drinkers can help by using corn-based products, they should, right? At a press conference last week, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and International Paper announced they have shipped 10 million "eco-friendly" coffee cups to cafes and office kitchens across the country. The cups have a coating made of corn, instead of an oil-based compound. They join ethanol, paper, clothing and carpet, all corn-based products making their way into the marketplace. "Up until now, all of those coffee cups, including perhaps the ones you had in your hands on the way to meet with us this morning, were lined with petrochemicals, derived from fossil fuels, to keep them water tight," said T.J. Whalen, Green Mountain"s vice president of marketing. "Those same petrochemicals keep them from degrading naturally." The new cups don"t affect the taste of coffee and are better choices for the environment, Whalen said. The paper used to make them comes from tree farms, ensuring there is no harvesting of old-growth trees. Whalen said the cup was a "better choice for consumers" and a "simple step to help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels." Corn-based products are being touted as a way for rural America to benefit economically. They are also a way to better the environment. And, with help from corn-based products such as ethanol, the clean-burning fuel, the $475,000-a-minute U.S. dependence on foreign oil will decrease, its proponents say. "We are seeing quite a few companies with products made from corn, like plastic cups, rulers, key chains, comforters," said Rhondalee Dean-Royce, communications specialist for the National Corn Growers Association. "We are excited to see more companies take hold of a bio-based product and take part in a bio-based economy." The group, which represents more than 32,000 corn growers across the United States, advocates for bio-based products and a bio-based economy. Although the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans throw out more than 25 billion Styrofoam cups a year, Mike Levy, director for the Polystyrene Packaging Council, maintains there are good uses for polystyrene. "It keeps hot food hot and cold food cold," he said. "Some of the newer, more compostable cups are limited on temperature, especially for hot liquids like coffee." Levy said he thought bio-based corn-coated cups "made a lot of sense" but insisted consumers look closer. "People say, "Let"s ban polystyrene products," and we just can"t do that," Levy said. "We have to look at the whole lifestyle of materials from cradle to grave and realize there are environmental trade-offs for both polystyrene and corn-based products." He said its not "necessarily a bad thing" that plastics do not degrade. Many can be used more than once. Any container that is not disposed of correctly or recycled can end up as litter
. "Unless we get at the littering issue, these products will stay in the environment. We think plastic products perform well, if not better, and have as many environmental trade-offs as degradable products," he said. Some companies, including Starbucks, are working to lessen their environmental impact. According to the Starbucks" Corporate Social Responsibility 2005 annual report, the company bought 1.9 billion hot beverage coffee cups made from more than 60 million pounds of virgin tree fiber. In light of this, the company developed a hot beverage paper cup made with 10 percent recycled paper fiber. The company also gives customers who bring in their own "commuter mugs" a 10-cent discount.