Wood stir sticks for coffee: an environmental impact analysis

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.

19 thoughts on “Wood stir sticks for coffee: an environmental impact analysis

  1. I don’t know why coffee shops don’t just use spoons – they already have to wash cups and plates; what are a few spoons extra? Nice thoughtful blog posting by the way!!

  2. What about bamboo? It’s not wood, it grows in poor soils and it renews itself after a few years and not decades like wood.

    More and more, I see dry pasta used as a substitute to stir sticks but if all coffee shops start using it, will the price of wheat shoot up like corn did and negatively impact poor people who rely on it to survive?

    Life cycle analysis on paper cups show that using a washable alternative is a better choice if you use it about 500 single times, taking into consideration the energy from washing the cups. (Some LCA forget about the washing part!). So I would think that coffee shops should use spoons and wash them and avoid stir sticks for the same reason.

  3. No matter what material you use to produce single-use sticks, they are still SINGLE USE and they need to be disposed of. The solution is simple…use something that can be washed and reused, like regular spoons. This is the standard in Europe, but the US are still trapped in this “use once and throw away” mentality which is simply non-sustainable.
    Good article by the way.

  4. Wood is renewable. If the wood is bought from a reputable environmentally responsible company there should be no impact to the environment. Plastic stir sticks are far far worse and probably pose a health risk for leaching chemicals from the sticks into the hot coffee. They should just have a separate garbage for the wood so it can be composted.

  5. I just did a 5 minute Googling and I found that Dixie sells bulk plastic 5.5″ stir sticks ad $3 for 1000. I also found organic fair-trade 11″ spaghetti at $2/lb.
    By my simple math, if you break in half the pasta and come up with at least 700 sticks per pound you would even save money!
    I suspect large vendors like Panera (they use the black plastic straws) would greatly benefit from this simple idea, if only someone could tell them in a way they understood…$?

  6. Ummmmm. The renewable part of this story is of concern, however I am currently investigating the ‘shard’ potential these sticks have in comparison to a statistical analysis done several years ago on chop sticks. Apparently they account for a few deaths by design, and if anyone has info I’m interested in trying to sell the pasta idea to an up-and-coming coffee chain.

    • Katherine are you still looking to promote to coffee chains? Not that I have currently have an “in” I was just wondering if you did. Maybe we could be of help to each other.

  7. I understand there is a problem with deforestation of bamboo for use as chopsticks in China. Someone suggested using bamboo for stir straws, but I don’t think that’s a good idea unless the bamboo stands are managed properly. Since they probably would be shipped from China, the probability of proper management is greatly reduced since they already have a problem.
    The best way to “recycle” is to re-use over and over again. If you want to make an impact, carry your own spoon with you. I use a spoon in my office and wash it myself. I also remove the disgarded wooden stir straws from the trash and am saving them for model railroad building projects.

  8. From cnet.com “Save Your Spoons and Stirring Sticks”

    “…….we use and throw out more than 138 billion of the non-biodegradable plastic sticks every year. This comes out to (give or take) about 69,000,000 pounds of plastic.”

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  10. Hi there, I love this article, and it’s an issue that has plagued me for a number of years. Why do we have to manufacture plastics, and deforest trees just to stir our coffee’s? This is something I’ve thought about long and hard and I may have a true green alternative. It just requires a little planning and a little labour. I’d also love to hear any feedback you and your commentators might have.

    Please visit: naturalstirstick.com

  11. I see some people here are kicking around the idea of using pasta sticks for stirring hot beverages, and frankly I have a really serious problem with this.

    Speaking as someone with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting about 1% of the population whose only treatment is strict avoidance of ALL sources of gluten that might contaminate whatever I eat or drink, I can’t think of a more effective way for a coffee shop owner to let me know I’m NOT welcome in his establishment than by forcing me to stir my drink with what amounts to a stick of poison.

  12. Thanks for this post. I can’t stand seeing all that wood going in the garbage after one stir! I keep a stirrer in my bag and use it over & over again. I keep thinking there should be a great art project out there for someone using used sticks. Glad to hear someone is using them for model projects! Remember all those popsicle stick projects? Yes to spoons. Most coffee shops offer cups why not spoons? I’m going to ask at my coffee shop.

  13. Solution: First, pour your sugar, syrup, or honey in the cup. Then add little bit of hot coffee or tea. Second, give it all a good swirl. After dissolving or dispersing your sweetener, pour cream or milk directly into the cup. Last, pour in the rest of the coffee or tea. The simple motion of pouring coffee or tea into the cup will also help mix everything together. Viola! You’ll have a mixed cup without ever having to use any type of stirrer.

    • Hey, Brick Masters! (cool thing you’re doing, btw). My name is Bill True. I wrote this as a short paper for a masters-level sustainable business management class at the University of MN in 2011 and then posted it on my blog, True Life.

  14. The reason our company has chose wood over plastc stirrers is because of the toxins realsed from the plastic once it hits the hot liquid. The same reason we never cook anything in a plastic container.
    Thank you.

    • Rj…good point! And I am glad this post still attracts some attention. It’s an important topic.

      I get what you’re saying and understand the trade off. Not certain how big your company is, but wondering if you folks have explored/have a line on other types of wood (or other materials) other than white birch. If I remember right, the specific issue is that we’re using up white birch wood faster than it can be replaced.

      Any thoughts on that? And thanks for being considerate to your customers re: toxins in plastic. My family has been concerned about that, too. We’re trying to use fewer plastic containers, etc., as well.

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