Diving into life-cycle thinking — one cup of coffee at a time

Reducing waste and protecting the planet today calls for new ways of thinking. To achieve the greatest environmental benefit at a reasonable cost, the sustainability experts at Waste Management adopted life-cycle thinking.

Here’s why it’s important for communities and businesses committed to minimizing their carbon footprints: Life-cycle thinking is a data-driven approach that measures environmental impact throughout the production, use and disposal of an item’s lifetime. This framework helps us make informed decisions about the materials we use and consume every day.

Think about it: The goal of recycling is to reduce environmental impact. By creating new materials out of recycled content, we achieve just that. If we reduce the amount of material used in the first place, we shrink the impact even more. Life-cycle thinking is important because it takes us one step further.

Let’s look at the packaging of Seattle’s favorite beverage from a life cycle perspective. When choosing coffee in the grocery store, you typically see three types of packages: a metal coffee can, a plastic coffee can and a plastic flexible package.

The Environmental Protection Agency compared these types of packages from the perspective of life-cycle thinking. The metal and plastic containers are recyclable, while the plastic flexible package is not. However, per ounce of coffee, the plastic flexible package created the least amount of waste, used less energy to produce, less energy to transport (because more packages can fit in one truck) and had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

Now here comes the mind bender: If we are looking to minimize the environmental impact of our coffee, the EPA study shows plastic flexible packages are the clear winner – even though they are not recyclable. That’s right! If your objective is to buy coffee in the most sustainable packaging, the best choice isn’t necessarily made from recyclable materials — and it isn’t always recyclable.

OK. Now that we’ve upended what we’ve always thought about recycling, what about the coffee cup? A reusable coffee cup is an obvious choice for the environment. But when you forget your trusty travel mug at home, is a paper or plastic cup a better choice?

In this case, life-cycle thinking helps us to determine the environmental impacts of each product, but doesn’t give us a clear winner. The good news is that both paper and plastic cups are accepted in your curbside recycling bin in Snohomish County.

If you want to dive deep into the data, numerous resources exist to help you dissect the impacts of all kinds of products. You’ll find a great deal of research and discussion about packaging innovation and sustainability measurement.

In fact, experts at Waste Management are on the cutting edge of this work, partnering with manufacturers to advance technologies that reduce the overall environmental impacts of new and different packaging materials.

For the rest of us, as we notice new types of packaging in the grocery aisle, the key is to remember that life-cycle impacts are often linked to the quantity and weight of packaging. That means products with minimal and lightweight packaging are usually the best bets for the environment. And when we can buy products with no packaging, the choice is crystal clear.

Michelle Metzler is Waste Management’s recycling education and outreach manager. Learn more about life-cycle thinking at sustainability.wm.com.

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