A short paper I just wrote for my Sustainability for Business class. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it does represent an important epiphany I had this morning: the businesses that are selling wooden stir sticks as a “green” alternative to plastic ones could very likely be full of shit.
Here it is:
Recently, I’ve noticed a move from plastic stir sticks to wood ones in nearly every shop I visit. I’ve assumed this change is an attempt by coffee shops to be more “green” because a move away from petroleum-based to organic products intuitively seems to be a good one. When it comes to wooden stir sticks, looks may be deceiving. Upon conducting a brief lifecycle assessment of wooden stir sticks, I would have to rate the trend a 7 or 8 in terms of its impact on the environment. In other words, despite distributors’ assertions that wooden stir sticks are “better” for the environment than plastic ones, they still represent a potentially significant negative impact on the environment–specifically as it relates to the destruction of virgin resources required to make the sticks and the waste generated after their use.
There are five stages in the lifecycle of a wooden stir stick: 1. Growing and harvesting white birch trees (the wood primarily used for stir sticks), 2. Manufacturing the sticks, 3. Distributing the sticks, 4. Using the sticks, 5. Disposing of/recycling the sticks. Although one could find red flags at any step in the process, the types of concerns raised in stages 2-4 are common across today’s commercial spectrum. The rise in the amount of white birch to accommodate increased demand, however, presents a real and immediate environmental concern. Further, although technically compostable, companies selling these sticks tout it as a presently meaningful benefit. This claim is erroneous, if not outright misleading.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources states, “The volume of paper birch (another name for white birch) has decreased significantly since 1983.” Moreover, growth rates have decreased over the past 23 years and are currently negative, which means that white birch mortality currently outpaces new growth. Present-day harvesting methods are one probable culprit, as birches grow naturally alongside aspen trees in the wild. The two types of trees fair better in “mixed” woodland systems, yet require different harvesting methods to most effectively support regeneration for each of them–aspens flourish with a clearcut method, while birches do well with a see-tree or shelterwood one. Commercial cutters typically favor clear-cutting. As a result, aspen trees often take over in areas that were far more balanced before cutting was initiated. This trend has put birch populations in a precarious position, as the number of pole-sized trees has decreased almost 35% since 1996, and the number of seedlings and saplings has decreased as well. Even more alarming is that the ratio of removals to growth tripled from 1983 to 1996, which implies that commercial cutters have not gotten the message that the birch population is in trouble. An increased demand for this type of wood from stir stick manufacturers can only exacerbate this already troubling situation.
Companies’ composting selling point is also an area for concern. Although wooden sticks represent no more waste than their plastic counterparts (in fact, they represent less intrinsic longterm waste, as they break down easier), the composting claim as a selling point could lead to negative impacts. To be certain, wooden stir sticks have been deemed “compostable.” Whether they are “backyard” compostable or, like corn-based PLA containers, need to be composted in a commercial facility is still up for debate. Assuming they are compostable via facilities only, their use reaps virtually no net gain in environmental impact terms. At present, according to an article in Coffee Talk magazine, “There are only 144 commercial composters across the country serving 30,000 communities, the compostability…becomes almost an irrelevant environmental benefit.” Besides, in order for stir sticks to be composted, they need to be disposed of in a separate container–not the garbage. To date, I have not personally seen or heard of any coffee shop in the US that boasts a “compost bin” for stir sticks, PLA containers, or any appropriate organic waste, for that matter. Finally, one has to wonder whether the false sense of security the composting claims creates might lead to consumers using and disposing of wooden stir sticks much more freely than they used and tossed plastic ones. If this is the case, the change to wooden stir sticks could represent a net reduction in sustainability for the coffee shop industry over their plastic predecessors.
Both concerns are compounded by the fact that, according to CoffeeStatistics.com (which purports to be the leading provider of coffee statistics), Americans alone consume about 146 billion cups of coffee each year. And the coffee shop industry continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant business. The number of coffee shops in the US grew 157% from 2000 to 2005, and it continues to grow at a robust 7% per year. If the industry is truly committed to a sustainable path, real eco-friendly alternatives to both plastic and wooden stir sticks need to be found…quickly.