Not resting comfortably about “GREEN compliant” cups

Cup versus mugThe NY city hotel I stayed in last night, which I’ll call NYHOTEL, has paper cups where most hotels have glass.  Next to the cups on the sink was a tiny piece of cardboard with this printed note:

Rest comfortably knowing that NYHOTEL drinking cups are 100% sanitary and are completely GREEN compliant.


First, I had thought glass was a clear winner life-cycle-wise last night, but the jury appears to be out and you have to reuse the glass cups a lot to break even — all things being equal.

Second, however, all things aren’t quite equal.  These paper cups were individually wrapped in plastic, no doubt to be persuasive about the sanitary claim.  That’s a lot of waste.

Third, even if it’s a wash, so to speak, what the heck is this claim of “completely GREEN compliant” designed to reassure the user?  It seemed pretty bogus at the time, and I found nothing on Google today.

In any case, I didn’t rest comfortably.  [Note to self:  What else is new?]  I’d have been happier without the note.

11 Responses to Not resting comfortably about “GREEN compliant” cups

  1. Larry Gilman says:

    The linked-to article comparing the ceramic cup to a disposable paper cup doesn’t seem to take into account that there is a significant probability that the paper cup will, in the landfill, decay anaerobically and produce methane in so doing.

    Wherever paper products decay anaerobically, the paper cycle becomes, in one aspect, a machine for taking carbon out of the air (from CO2) and then re-releasing it as methane (CH4), at least 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas. According to, “Paper is the #1 organic material in our landfills and the #1 source of landfill methane, both by volume and per unit.” I haven’t verified that, but it seems plausible.

    The methane _could_ in principle be captured, but surely only a very small fraction of US landfill methane is, at present, actually being captured or flared off. I don’t know what the long-term limit on such interception is, though there are probably figures on that.

    No analysis of the impact of throwaway paper products can be complete without taking the methane into account, I think. At least to convince us that it is a negligible term, if that really is the case.

  2. mahmijd says:

    Koch Industries bought 50,000 employee Georgia Pacific. They make money on foam or plastic or paper cups. Paper products use water in their manufacture. Lots of water. Even more if the paper is recycled.

  3. Leif says:

    Pack your own cup if practical.

  4. Larry Gilman says:

    And while we’re tweaking the routine life-waste, whether in the hotel or at home, be it noted that, at least as far as microbes go (heavy grease is a different matter), lukewarm or even cold water is just as effective for hand-washing as is hot water: .

  5. ruben says:

    Sometimes I feel like I spend my whole day typing responses to the misuse of Life Cycle Analysis. So here is a cut and paste.

    LCA cannot hope to weight the future. It is all very fine to say one litre of petroleum is worth X, but 50 years from now our descendants may disagree strongly with the valuations we chose. As the residents of Easter Island learned, the last tree is literally priceless. Indeed, any factor cannot hope to truly capture the future value of all non-renewable resources. Will people suffering from some future pandemic for lack of disposable syringes wish our LCAs on styrofoam cups had used a higher factor? Can our convenience be valued against their health or life?

    Valuing non-renewable resources is an impossible task, which is why, at the very least, LCA should be used only to compare apples to apples. The only use I could recommend for LCA would be to compare the unsustainable to unsustainable and the sustainable to sustainable. Of course, in our current system even renewable materials can not be easily extracted from a non-renewable power and transport system, making even this calculation very difficult.

    So, use glass. And Joe, when you travel, you should carry your own mug anyway.

  6. Peter Wood says:

    Often logging related emissions count as “forest degradation” rather than “deforestation” and so do not need to be accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol (not that the US is a signatory), so emissions from paper cups could he higher than claimed.

    Best option is probably to get second hand glass cups from op shops or wherever.

  7. Ruth Brandt says:

    @ruben – I’m not sure I understand your argument. the idea of a LCA is to calculate how much resources a product is using, taking – in theory – everything into account.

    However, an analysis that doesn’t find much of a difference between a reusable and a non reusable option raises questions if indeed everything was taken into account (or as near as possible)

    In this case, a few examples that came to mind while reading

    – what about the energy it takes to recycle a paper cup (separating it from the waste stream, extra collections of trash, the whole mechanical process it goes through until it can be used again)

    – and if they’re not recycled (which is still extremely likely) there is the methane that Larry mentioned, the extra landfill space and the extra burden on the waste collection system

    – then there’s of course the transport – while a ceramic cup is transported one time to it’s destination, each paper cup has to be transported before it can be used.

    and that just really some common sense points that came into mind. I’m sure a closer inspection by an expert will bring up many more such issues.

  8. Hmpf says:

    Re: reusing glass or ceramic cups a lot: but isn’t that what people typically do? About 90% of my dishes are inherited from my grandma, which means they’ve been in continuous use for about fifty, sixty years now. And even my parents, who are less about reusing old stuff than I am, have only replaced their dishes once in my lifetime so far, after 15-20 years of use. (What is problematic, of course, is some people’s tendency to see dishes and glasses as something to be replaced as the fashion changes, every other year or so. But I doubt that that’s the majority, even now.)

  9. Dan says:

    While there may be some uncertainty whether a paper cup is better than a glass or ceramic cup and whether plastic grocery bags are better than paper bags, there is no doubt that re-using things like sheets and towels in hotels is better than washing them every day (that is, when the guest stays for more than one night; I’m not suggesting that others re-use my towel).

    Many hotels claim to have a program for saving water and energy by not laundering every towel and sheet every day. Many of these hotels fail implement those programs even when I do exactly what they suggest – hang the towel up so that it can be used again.

    I hope all readers of this blog will consistently complain to hotel managers when the hotel staff fails to implement these very sensible conservation measures.

  10. paulm says:

    At least reuse the paper cup, till it starts to leak.

  11. Stephan says:

    Both of course have their pros and cons . However, it very much depends on the usage of the glass and paper cups which ones are most eco-frienndly. Good to see though that the hotel is making an efford in creating an eco-friendly business!

    For more info on the environment, have a look at this Green News.