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Using LCA to Grade Starbucks: Sustainable Innovation or Greenwashing?


LCA and greenwashing

The New Starbucks Reusable Cup

Amid pressure from environmental groups concerned about disposable cups causing overflowing landfills, Starbucks recently unveiled its $1 reusable cup. It’s designed as a cost-effective way to encourage customers to reduce their waste.

The company hopes that, by offering a 10-cent discount for every refill, they’ll achieve a large-scale behavior change, one that will result in an increase from the current 1.9% multi-use cups to their goal of 5% by 2015, according to a recent USA Today story

Behavior is a notoriously hard thing to change. And even if customers buy these reusable cups in the thousands, will it make a demonstrable environmental impact?

Life Cycle Assessment and Environmental Impacts

Through the lens of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a technique designed to assess environmental impacts of all the stages of a product's life from-cradle-to-grave, the question reveals a complex set of tradeoffs that the process is designed to examine in a clear and unbiased fashion. 

For instance, the benefit of the reusable cup depends on a number of life cycle factors, including the average number of uses it gets (not many if it’s wedged underneath the passenger side seat of the car), as well as the impacts of the plastic used in its production. And what about the boiling water that Starbucks has pledged to use – and the energy required to heat it – to clean the cup prior to reuse? They’ll need to get that cup extremely clean to avoid cross-contamination of germs and negative human health impacts.

Add to that the distance said plastic traveled to get from production in China to the North American Starbucks store where it’s sold and you’ve got yet another tradeoff to consider.

And what about carbon footprint? When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that the cup a consumer uses is among the smallest contributors to global warming; the gas they burn on the way to the nearest coffee shop is a much more significant contributor. Check out this brief document from the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan for a sobering look at how household, transportation, and food product factor into our collective carbon footprint.

The Reusable vs. Disposable Debate Heats Up

The same questions surface in just about all of the highly visible reusable vs. disposable debates. Take reusable shopping bags, for example. Would the energy required to remember those bags be better spent by taking less trips to the store? Or perhaps buying only what you’ll eat? Here, LCA shows that the paper vs plastic vs reuse debate is distracting us from the real issues, like the amount of food we waste and the enormous impacts of our transportation system.using LCA to avoid greenwashing

Then there’s the age-old debate about cloth diapers versus disposable. The UK Environment Agency decided to take a clear look at the environmental tradeoffs associated with diapers. Beginning the study in a traditional scientific manner, the researchers hypothesized that disposable diapers would result in significantly more environmental impact than reusable cloth diapers.

Instead of a clear winner, however, the researchers instead found a tight horserace that depended more on the jockey than the horse. According to the study, “the environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies (diapers) can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered. The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies.”

Like many sustainability-related topics, the devil is in the details, and in the behavior.

The Bottom Line of Assessing Environmental Impacts

“The bottom line of the study was that all kinds of products have impacts and that there is no environmental winner between the two. They just have different impacts,” says Annie Weisbrod, Procter & Gamble’s Principal Scientist for Global Product Stewardship and LCA expert who has also spent time analyzing the potential impacts of disposable diapers using LCA.

Over the last two decades, impacts from detergent, washing machines and dryers, and diaper materials have been reduced over time as innovations in materials, processes, and supply chains were brought to the market, says Weisbrod.

But achieving real and lasting progress toward environmental sustainability is anything but easy or straightforward. It requires a disciplined, scientific approach to avoid burden shifting (AKA “greenwashing”). And it requires time.

No practice offers a panacea, but LCA is one of the most effective tools out there for taking a balanced, scientific look at actual product impacts in a variety of categories (from human health to carbon footprint to ecotoxicity, etc.) and offering a method for comparing them.

Contact EarthShift’s team of sustainability experts to learn more about Life Cycle Assessment through our training, consulting and software solutions.


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