Friday, November 2, 2012

Energy Production and Paper Cups:

Measuring the Impacts

I was traveling through Harrisonburg, Virginia a couple of weeks ago and stopped for lunch with my husband at a local barbecue joint.  I ordered a glass of iced tea with my meal.  When the iced tea came, I saw some text on the side of it.  Now, I have always been a voracious reader, and I can't tell you how many times I've sat at the breakfast table and read cereal boxes and the like, so although I just expected advertising or something, I simply had to read the text curling around the cup.

The iced tea was in a foam cup, and the text explained that paper cups produce 148% more waste by weight than foam cups.  Sounds good, right?  Except that the last time I checked, landfill is limited by volume, not by weight, and paper cups are thinner than foam cups.  Furthermore, paper is biodegradable, and foam generally is not. 

Admittedly, advances are being made in foam products, and some are biodegradable, but the cup didn't boast of being biodegradable.  I can't be absolutely sure, but after touting its weight advantages, I would have to believe it would have broadcast its biodegradability as well--if it were biodegradable.  But it didn't.

So what does this have to do with energy production?  Too often, I have seen promoters of various energy sources treat their products the same way--picking out the positives without presenting the whole picture.  Thus, we hear about how much wind or solar capacity has been built, but we aren't told that the fraction of power supplied by these sources is much smaller than the built capacity.  We also hear about how solar or wind or nuclear energy produce no greenhouse gases, but we aren't always told that each of these produces some other forms of waste.  We hear that natural gas or "clean coal" is cleaner than oil or regular coal and is produced domestically, but we don't hear how they compare to nuclear or solar or wind power, and we don't hear that very little of our electricity is generated from oil-fired plants. 

I could go on.  But this is no different from all the other things we use in our daily lives--paper versus plastic bags, genetically-modifed versus non-GM crops, electric cars versus gasoline-powered cars.  And foam cups versus paper cups.

The point, as always, is that every source of energy has multiple dimensions, some very positive, some negative--and some that can potentially be overcome with further technology development.  Yes, this makes it complex and problematical to compare sources.  Yes, it means that there is no one perfect source that we should rely on completely.

The "right" energy solution, and the "right" solution for almost everything else we use, is likely to involve a mix of options, and is likely to create continual pressure to reduce the downsides of each of these technologies.



  1. @Gail

    It is only rational for businesses and marketers to focus on the positive and to loudly proclaim that their product is superior to other choices.

    We are all used to promotion; we are surrounded by it every day.

    One of the reasons that the general public hears so much negative information about nuclear energy is that the nuclear industry is full of shy engineers who do not understand that people expect businesses to promote themselves. Since we are not telling our positive side of the story very loudly - with advertising budgets that are sized to be roughly equal to those of other enterprises of our size - all that is left for the public to hear is the negative comparisons from our competitors.

    I was in the plastics business for several years. I happen to like foam cups - they can be easily crushed down to a smaller size than equivalent paper cups, you rarely have to use two of them in order to be able to hold your hot coffee, and their light weight makes them easier to transport, consuming less fuel because of the reduced effort.

    With regard to that waste that you mentioned from nuclear plants, how many times do you think that the public has heard the industry tell them that it is not really a big issue, that we store all of the waste that we make in relatively small buildings and that we are putting aside enough money to handle it over the long term, while only adding a tenth of a cent for every kilowatt hour we generate?

    Our waste problem is a lot more manageable than that of our competitors, but all the public hears is the negative side.

    (See how this is supposed to work?)

  2. I'll have to agree with you completely on that one Rod.

    -Green Apple Energy USA