Uncomfortable truth

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Uncomfortable truth

The author is the head of the Innovation Lab of the JoongAng Ilbo.

On a rainy day a few years ago, a colleague took off the disposable plastic umbrella cover, shook it and put it in her pocket to reuse it later. As I was impressed by the action to protect the environment, I started to do the same thing. Later, I met another environmentalist who always brings her personal tumbler to Starbucks for drinks. As I didn’t want to wash and carry the tumbler every time, I didn’t copy her. Instead, I tried to get my drink on a mug as much as possible.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, cafes have increasingly stopped allowing personal tumblers and mugs. As people were getting used to disposable cups again, Starbucks’ reusable cup crisis occurred. People flocked to the event to get plastic reusable cups for free. Starbucks employees who had to endlessly make drinks even organized a protest on Oct. 7 and 8 to complain about the chronic shortage of workers.

It was the first collective action since Starbucks opened in Korea in 1999. The protest trucks had messages such as “To protect the environment, stop the excessive marketing of plastic goods.”

Starbucks is good at eco-friendly marketing. When you bring a personal tumbler, you get an “eco-star.” Starbucks was the first in the industry to offer paper straws, even if they didn’t get the best reviews from users. Starbucks gave people a reason to buy recycled goods and pretty tumblers to replace disposable cups.

Starbucks’ marketing was charming yet overdone. I often hear people saying they buy drinks they won’t actually consume during promotional periods to win merchandise. The situation was similar for the eco-friendly reusable cup event.

CIRAI, an international environmental protection research group, presented the results of its study that reusable cups are better for the environment than disposable cups when they are used at least 20 times and as many as 1,000 times, depending on the material.

That’s because of the need to take into account all the energy required to produce and dispose of reusable cups, the carbon dioxide emissions from transportation and the environmental pollution from the water and detergent needed for washing the cups.

Even the most environmentally friendly cups cannot be eco-friendly if too many are made. Consumers need to learn the uncomfortable truth about eco-friendly marketing.

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