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Surly wants to know what YOU think

From the folks at Surly…

A Surly Conundrum

So here’s an interesting situation. Let me know what you think.
We have started shopping around for disposable plastic beer cups. Surly is doing more events in the summer in which we need to supply cups. Up to this point we have used blank cups to do events, but it would be nice to actually get a Surly beer in a Surly cup. So, I have looked into a few options, one being compostable cups. They are plastic cups made from corn that will degrade in a landfill. Super! Cups at those types of events never get recycled. The price is twice that of regular plastic cups, but it seems like this would be a good opportunity to support those fledgling greener options. After talking to the folks that supply the cups, I found an interesting tale.
The cups are not actually made in North America, China is the place. I responded with “wow, I didn’t know they grew a lot of corn in China.” Well, looks like they don’t grow much corn in China. The sheets are made here in the USA, then shipped on a freighter, made into cups and printed in China, and then shipped back to America.
Huh. So now what? Is it better to support a compostable option that is really not that green. Or should we just get some plastic cups here in the States? The best option would be getting those corn cups here in the States, but I can’t find that option.


  1. Justin says:

    I think the pros of it not sitting in a landfill forever out weigh the transport to china and back.
    that said, this company seems to make corn based in the USA

  2. Chase says:

    In my completely unprofessional opinion, the environment costs of transporting TO and FROM China outweigh the costs of having the waste sit in a landfill for the rest of the eternity.

  3. Scott says:

    If it took one gallon of fuel to ship a single cup to china and back, that cup would cost as much as one gallon of fuel (plus the material and manufacturing costs). While I have no idea how much big ships pay for fuel, you have to imagine it is not markedly less than an average gallon of fuel. Since the cups cost MUCH less than a gallon of fuel, it seems logical to assume it uses MUCH less than a gallon of fuel to ship them there and back… Thus making them not AS bad.

    In my opinion, the bigger value using compostable cups provides is raising awareness. Shifting the average consumer’s mindset away from our current use-and-dump pattern helps to encourage conservation of resources in all areas or their lives, not just the cup they are currently drinking a delicious beer out of. Change breeds change, and anything we can do to help consumers think about what they are chucking in a landfill can have a domino effect down the line.

    So, maybe use whatever compostable option is available, but make a commitment to re-evaluate in 3 or 6 months to find a more regionally sourced product.

  4. Mike BGP says:

    If you are willing to absorb the cost of the compostable cups, then awesome. I agree with Justin. The option of having something that will decompose might be a better product to support than traditional plastic cups.

  5. BK-Teach says:

    I would gladly pay $5 at a Surly event for a collectible Surly mug/stein/cup/wine glass/goblet/drinking vessel.

    This option saves the environment, gives me a momento and something to drink from at home. Unless of course, I drink to much hoppy Sulry, fall down and get shards of glass in my hand.

    That’s a chance I’m willing to take.

  6. Joe says:

    I agree with BK-Teach regarding a non-disposable drinking vessel, although I assume that glass is out of the question for most events.

    I also like the idea of cups that will break down faster but I would prefer a local product. For the same cost as the corn cups you could probably buy conventional locally produced cups and some Surly branded recycling stations. Then you are (hopefully) keeping the cups out of a landfill and raising awareness.

  7. Trav says:

    Why do regular cups not get recycled at these type of events? Drunkies cant differentiate from a recycling bin only for cups and bins for garbage?

  8. Ben says:

    Trav: I’d basically say that’s the case. Do you see separate recycling bins for cups at other events? Not very often it seems. All the plastic cups end up in the same garbage can at sporting events, concerts, etc. It may just be more a matter of taking the time to setup recycling services and putting out the bins. Then comes the question of how recyclable are the plastic cups really (what percentage of them is recyclable, what kind of energy resources are needed to recycle them, and more). It may not even be worth it to recycle them in the end.

    Is ethanol a great alternative to gasoline when it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol then the energy that gallon will produce?

  9. BK-Teach says:

    Alright, fine. Give me a hard, plastic stein with the Surly Logo. It’s got to have a handle though. I have a St. Patrick’s day mug from 1998 that I still use and it hasn’t cracked. The logos are gone but the memories haven’t faded.

  10. DanK says:

    As long as the plastic cups don’t originate in China, then I’m for plastic. Just seems like such a waste shipping it back and forth.

  11. Duke says:

    A reusable stein is the way to go in my opinion. I got one this year at the MPLS Oktoberfest celebration. Its plastic, decent quality and is sitting in cupboard right now. Ive used it many times since last fall and will be bringing it camping with me this summer. Also, check out Schells kick ass acrylic dimple steins. They are super beefy and awesome. Ive had one for many years now and still use it regularly.

  12. Lars says:

    I fired up my eco-beer-cup finding machine, and found that there is a company in Michigan called Fabri-Kal that makes “eco-friendly” cups using a bio-polymer developed by NatureWorks LLC (which is headquartered in Minnetonka). They claim to be 100% made in the USA, and from what I can tell the raw material is made in Nebraska and then the cups are made in Michigan. I can’t pretend to know any more than what google tells me, but it at least looks like there are options for eco-friendly products that are made in the good ol’ USA.

    Fabri-Kal (makes the cups):

    NatureWorks LLC (makes the bio-polymer, used in the cups):

    Anyone else think that ‘’ maybe wasn’t the best domain name choice for Fabri-Kal’s website?

  13. WitsEnd says:

    Why not push for more recycling at festivals? This seems like the easiest solution and the one that would impact the environment less.

    When it comes down to it, the materials in a cup are cheap. You’re paying for shipping (fuel).

  14. Jono says:

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the safety question when it comes to goods from China. i.e. lead levels in toys, melamine particles in pet food, etc. I suppose that’s maybe a bit alarmist…but yet another reason I’d say no on the Chinese-made cups…

  15. Trav says:

    The hard plastic stein is a pretty good thought, but at big fests, they typically pre-pour all the beer into cups, ala Bock Fest. Even if you have your own vessel to reuse, you still get the cups.

  16. SPB says:

    Maybe we should eliminate cups altogether and just go for direct pours from keg to mouth.

  17. Jono says:

    Doing it the same old way (plastic, non-recyclable cups) is the easy, cheap option.

    Trying to go green with the Corn cups is expensive, but better for the planet.

    Glassware is great, so long as the participant pays for said glassware, and safety isn’t a huge concern.

    That’s the long-and-short of it, I realize that I am re-stating the obvious…but I think if it were my decision, I’d lean toward the glassware route. Please tell me what I’m not thinking of, because I’m sure I’m not taking something into consideration.

    As a volunteer and participant at a couple of Surly events — I’d be perfectly happy to bring my own glassware or receive a shiny new glass included in the price of admission.

    This issue needs to be raised more “globally” — at the event promoter level. The folks that organize these events need to start thinking about the environmental impact.

  18. Mag says:

    I think keg-stands at beer events is the best solution. Couple that with highly absorbent mustaches that can be dipped and sipped at one’s leisure and you’ve got uber-green.

  19. TruthBrew says:

    Is the plastic in those cheap cups really even recyclable even in quantity?

    Impossible to know the true answer to the question without knowing what it takes to manufacture a normal cup vs. a recyclable cup.

    My vote, if the material going into the landfill isn’t a contaminant, then it’s better to buy the local, cheap, toss-away option. Thin plastic cups should break down in 400 or 500 years right?

  20. Ben says:

    World ends in 2012 anyways right, so why should we care?

  21. WisconsinBeer says:

    Nope. How much lead will the Chinese plastic cups contain? How many gallons of fuel will it take to transport them? USA sourced cups are the better choice.

    Oh, and saying that it will decompose in a landfill isn’t true. It’s just one of those feel-good things to give people the warm and fuzzies. Decomposition requires air and water. Throwing something in a plastic bag and burying it under 3 ft of trash does not make for a cup that will de-compose. It will still be around in 3000 years, just like all the other plastic garbage our society produces.

  22. Jeremy says:

    Here’s my take:

    Worst: Using throw-away, conventional plastic cups that my great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have to deal with. And I probably am missing a few “greats”.

    Better: Using the biodegradable cups that are produced in China. Hate the CO2 emitted during transportation (and the lax Chinese consumer protection standards), but at least we don’t have all those stupid red cups laying around for 500+ years.

    Even Better: Using biodegradable cups that are produce locally, or at least regionally.

    Best: Something reusable that we can take home. However, it would have to be valuable enough that people won’t just end up throwing it away.

  23. shanes66charger says:

    keep searching. It’s likely there are recyclable cups made somewhere in the USA. Buying from china will do more harm than good.

    P.S. Thanks for getting all the surly up to moorhead/fargo! Coffee bender is here too!

  24. John Mac says:

    For those of us, like Surly, that are making at least some attempt to improve the world, forget about the little debates like what cup to use. Do like the Union of Concerned Scientists always preaches, get a high gas mileage car (unless you’re “in the trades” or hauling that huge MN boat around). There are no recycling or conservation efforts that are even close to the environmental expense of burning foreign gas. Drink up in that plastic cup and hopefully it will get burned and scrubbed to return a little more energy. Your head’s in the right place, though.

  25. dbrewing says:

    We shall drink from the skulls of our vanquished foes.

  26. Don Berryman says:

    You should server beer in pretzel cups! Edible and compostable.

  27. Ben says:

    WisconsinBeer is right. Decomposition doesn’t take place in most landfills. Everything is packed down tight with as much air as possible removed which stops decomposition from taking place. Even getting “eco-cups” isn’t really a solution (unless you’re willing to compost them yourself, maybe send them off to a brewery with a hop/grain field), it just makes you feel better about yourself.

  28. Jen says:

    Has anyone actually used the corn-based cups? I’ve used the plates, and if you store them for any extended period of time, they tend to warp and develop a giant “bubble” on the surface (covers about half the plate).

    I don’t mind it personally, but if you’re purchasing in bulk, it’s an issue to consider.

  29. Mark Snyder says:

    The only way it helps to use the compostable cups is if you take the extra step to make sure they actually get composted. If they are put with other trash, then they will get burned in an incinerator or buried in a landfill like that other trash and will not actually become compost.

    Contact an organization like Eureka Recycling ( to learn how to set up a waste-free event and you will not only ensure that your cups get composted, but also stuff like food waste, paper plates, napkins and other items that are compostable will get composted, too. Eureka Recycling also works with a number of Surly retailers through their Make Dirt, Not Waste program (

  30. Andy s says:

    dbrewing…that is an awesome answer, made me laugh

  31. Juno says:

    Just a thought and there are reasons why it won’t logistically work and no Surly logo but:

    What about bringing your own cup?

    I’ve got a 5 liter boot that…..

  32. Eric says:

    Landfills are sealed with massive amounts of rubber, so even if you put decomposable materials in a landfill, the only place they’ll break down and stay is in the landfill. Go glass!

  33. beery says:


    I’m sure that the chinese are going to make a special trip with the cargo ship to bring the “not really decomposable” cups to the US so they’re ready for the Surly event if Omar orders them.

    Some ship is coming to our shores filled with sh*t from China either way. Whether or not some cups get thrown in the cargo bin ain’t making any difference for the enviornment. This whole discussion is a prime example of doing things that make you feel better about yourself (and allow you to preach from your high horse) rather than making any difference that really matters.

    (but I do appreciate Omar at least thinking about the issue.)

  34. jf says:

    It’s a good thought, but just go for a reusable glass. Of course, if you choose plastic it will need to be BPA free. 🙂

  35. Katie says:

    Ceramic’s likely more expensive, but less dangerous in the event of breakery.
    Or, how about redesigning recycling containers to make them more cup-friendly–I’m thinking 5′ tall cup-sized transparent cylinders that you drop your cup down and add to a stack. That way they’re visually reminding folks to put beer cups (and only beer cups) inside and thus encourage recycling, and save space via the re-stacking of the cups. I’m a visionary.

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