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While out walking today I came across this:

Urban Art

Is this urban art, vandalism or a clever statement on the use of resources?

Just how bad are disposable cups anyway?  Our drinks dispenser at work gives out a plastic cup with each drink.  Most people have around 5 drinks a day (that being the number of free vends we are allowed!), 5 times a week, which is a whopping 1,100 plastic cups per person per year.

Now, if you place a mug in the machine before telling it what you want, it won’t give you a plastic cup.  If we all did that, would our impact on the environment be significant enough to be worth it?  It seems at first glance to be cut and dried – of course using one cup is better than using 1,100!  But, as always, there are complications.

This blog was an invaluable resource in doing this calculation.

Firstly, a list of things to consider:

  • The disposable cups are thin plastic, not polystyrene or paper.
  • The disposable cups are all recycled after use – so no landfill.
  • Mugs need to be washed – although I don’t wash mine after every drink, I know some people would.
  • Ceramic mugs are very energy intensive to make.
  • Transport costs – delivery and collection of disposable cups vs mugs.

A study from the 90’s looked at the energy requirements for different types of cups.  Unfortunately it didn’t compare ceramic with the thin plastic which we use, however it did show that ceramic mugs need to be used 1006 times to break even with polystyrene cups – mainly due to the cost of washing them.

Commercial dishwashers are around 51% more efficient now than they were in the 90s, so I looked at the sensitivity tests done in the Hocking study.  50% less energy in washing led to only 133 uses being needed – much more reasonable.

That study only looked at energy use.  We also have to account for the disposal.  Let’s assume that the breakage of ceramic mugs is negligible and the recycling of disposable cups balances out the extra delivery costs.  Then we can ignore both items in our calculation. (1)

So, with some sweeping generalisations, we come to the conclusion that using a mug instead of disposable plastic cups is well worth it – as long as you use it, say 200 times before you break it.

I’ve been using the same mug for around six years now, so at 1,100 drinks per year I’m feeling pretty good about the results of this calculation.

Which only leaves me with one question – urban art, vandalism or a clever statement on the use of resources?


(1) For those who get the joke… assume the cow is spherical.

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked for new toilet designs, I wonder if they suspected what they would get?  28 designs were shown at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle, including such delights as using urine to flush, turning excrement into charcoal, and using microwaves to turn poo into electricity.

The winner, though, was designed by a team from the California Institute of Technology.  It is solar powered, and produces hydrogen and electricity.  The toilet:

filters liquid waste through a “sun-powered electrochemical reactor” that oxidizes the chlorine in the urine and kills microorganisms, allowing the liquid to be recycled back into the toilet

I can’t imagine any story in which the design of toilets would play a major role, but it may be worth bearing in mind that in the future, even the things we think of as unchanging may not be recognisable.

This article, from the BBC, is about this year’s TED prize, which has been split between ten projects that are improving city life.

Some of them look interesting, but that’s not the point.

One of the winners, Ruganzu Bruno, will be using his share of the money to build a play centre in the slums of Uganda.  It will be made entirely from plastic bottles.

A play centre made from plastic bottles?  That is a proper innovative use of rubbish.  I wonder if we might have towns in the future which are made from recycled waste?  Could be some interesting architecture coming our way.

Would you consider buying a dress with litter sewn into it?  How about a hat made from dismembered Barbie legs?  No?  Not even if they were arranged like a mohican?

It’s the latest fashion trend, and once again I am confirmed in my belief that fashion is dumb.
But it does make an interesting thought – when you’re writing books about the future, how much do you think about the fashion?  Not just catwalk styles, but the everyday clothes that all of your characters wear?

Has there been a shortage of cotton in your world recently?  Environmental or economic reasons for re-using items?  Has there been a boom in the availability of materials, like the one I suspect will occur when star trek-style replicators are invented?  Has there been an ecological disaster which caused everyone to wear long sleeves to protect their bodies?

So many questions to consider!  It’s a wonder any of us write the actual stories.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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