Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Buyer Beware...of flimsy coffee tumblers!

A newspaper will take two months to decompose in a landfill. A paper coffee cup? will take 20 years. Add to that a report from Reuters' website that about 28 billion paper cups are discarded every year in the U.S. alone...that cup-a-day sure adds up fast. So what's a student to do?

Students looking for a more durable and/or environmentally friendly solution can turn to a coffee tumbler, but some tumblers don't perform all that much better than the paper counterpart. In a random sampling of 10 students carrying coffee mugs, 70% said they’d like a tumbler that doesn’t leak and keeps coffee hot for a longer period of time. So which tumblers can keep up with the rigours of student life? Erika, Sara, Greg, Mike, and I decided we had to know.

Each group member purchased a coffee tumbler from one of five different locations: Starbucks (Starbucks brand, $21.99), Tim Hortons (Tim Hortons brand, $4.69), Sears (Arcosteel brand, $9.99), Superstore (Home Presence brand. $14.99), and Dollarama (no brand/Dollarama brand, $1.25). We did secondary research to find similar experiments, and designed a series of primary research tests that we thought would mimic the 'everyday life' of a student's coffee tumbler.
The tumblers first went through a series of leak tests, being shaken from side-to-side, upside down, and then in every direction in a "crazy shake" test. This was to simulate what might happen to a tumbler that was put in a backpack, or the water-bottle holder of a bike, or just held while someone was running up stairs or for the bus. The results? Dollarama didn't have a cover for the mouthpiece and leaked; Sears had a cover but was still pretty leaky; Tim Hortons, Superstore, and Starbucks did pretty well, with Superstore the winner (we thought we saw a few drops for the Starbucks and Tim Hortons tumblers).

Second were the temperature tests: freshly boiled water was poured into the tumblers, which were left standing at room temperature. Then the tumblers were emptied, more freshly boiled water was added, and the tumblers were placed in a freezer at a constant temperature of -17 C (-1 F). At the end of each of these tests, only two tumblers remained in Starbucks' acceptable temperature range (150-170 F): the Starbucks tumbler and the Superstore tumbler. We judged the Superstore tumbler to be the winner because a thin layer of ice formed on the Starbucks tumbler - probably not too comfy for cold hands in the winter. (The "safe temperature range" is for health reasons - any lower and bacteria could start to grow if milk products were added; any higher, and the coffee might be too hot to drink safely)

Third were the 'drop' tests - to simulate what would happen to the tumblers if someone slipped on the ice or tripped on the stairs. The first test, from standing height, had surprising results. The Sears tumbler lost its plastic bottom piece and lid; Dollarama lost its lid; Tim Hortons didn't lose its lid but cracked down the side; Superstore's lid partially came off though it lost no water; Starbucks was fine. After the stair test, Dollarama and Sears had the same results, except that Sears' bottom piece cracked in two; Starbucks and Superstore were fine.

The final recommendation? Starbucks keeps the coffee slightly warmer (difference of about 9 degrees), but for $7 less, the Superstore tumbler's results were just as acceptable, and so this is the tumbler we declared the winner. Here is a picture of the winning tumbler, the "Eclipse Travel Mug" from Superstore.

(Unfortunately, some coffee tumblers were harmed over the course of this experiment. However, much fun was had by all group members!)


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