Paper or plastic?

The other day I noticed the following printed on a disposable beverage cup:

“An average weight paper cold cup generates 148% more solid waste by weight than a comparable foam cup.”

And also printed on the cup is a website:

“Environmental info: http://www.dart.biz”

I don’t recall ever seeing environmental information printed on something as simple as a foam cup before. I won’t dispute Dart’s claims, as I have no information to proclaim otherwise, and I recognize such claims are typically debatable. And even though I am guilty of purchasing the cup and the sweet unhealthy beverage that came within, I will point out that the most environmentally responsible choice would have been to bring a reusable cup and not not purchase the disposable cup at all. But, that is not really my point of this post; rather, the simple fact that the cup contains environmental information warrants contemplation.

I have been around long enough to recognize that businesses rarely do things entirely out of the goodness of their hearts. Usually, some kind of marketing reason is at least partially behind every business decision. After all, companies exist to make money, and I am sure even the most philanthropic action has at least least a few marketing managers influencing that act to make sure the company is portrayed in a way that boosts business (or at least does not hurt it). That is a fact of life that is rooted in human nature and is probably not much removed from a person dressing a certain way in order to attract friends or mates. I suspect the message on the foam cup is similar. Dart is probably using an environmental statistic as a means of selling more foam cups; and I really have no issue with that. In fact, if Dart really has sales in mind, the message on the cup means something deeper.

I consider the environmental message on the foam cup as positive. It symbolizes that some consumers are beginning to care about the environmental impact of the things they throw away. If the consumer didn’t care, Dart would have no reason to mention any environmental information on the cups. Again, this assumes companies always have marketing in mind.

But who is truly the consumer in this case? The end user (me) really has little choice what type of disposable cup to use. I doubt any consumers choose one restaurant over another because one uses wax paper cups and the other foam. People that really care about such things bring their own reusable cup or simply would not patronize either establishment. I suspect Dart is really marketing to store managers and franchisees who decide what type of cups to stock. But if that is the case, what good does the message do on the cup itself, and not just in the sales brochure? I can think of a few potential reasons:

1) It probably does not cost any more for the information to be printed on the cup, and I see no reason why it would hurt business to have positive environmental information printed on the cup – the “it wouldn’t hurt” philosophy.
2) Some of the consumers are probably managers/franchisees themselves, and will eventually be making decisions on what cups to stock for their own stores. When they go out to eat, managers of one restaurant probably pay attention to the way other restaurants are run, and get ideas on how to better run their own business
3) It makes people feel as if they are doing some good – both the end consumer and the store manager. Even if the impact is negligible, having a positive environmental message on a foam cup creates a positive image of Dart in the consumer’s mind that may influence the decision to buy other Dart products in the future.

I can’t believe I just spent an hour writing a post mostly about corporate marketing on my “science” blog. But, these issues are inseparable. Whatever the motivation, making average people think a little bit more about their environmental impact or wastefulness is never a bad thing.

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One Response to Paper or plastic?

  1. mandymcadoo says:

    I happened across your blog and found this post really interesting! On the one hand, it’s great the companies are attempting to put less garbage on our planet, but on the other hand sometimes they use “green” as an excuse for cost-saving measures. Like the trend to get people to buy reusable bags for a buck or two rather than giving them free plastic bags to carry their things in. The benefit for the retailer is obvious. And also, I almost always reuse plastic bags and it seems that lots of other people do too.

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