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The Ubiquitous Coffee Cup

This is a rant I have had for a long time. People need to STOP using disposable coffee cups!

Thankfully, unlike a few years ago, this topic is well covered on the internet. Many respected news outlets around the world have tackled the issue upfront. It is gratifying to see. But let’s review.

The world consumes enormous amounts of coffee and tea each year. Canadians drink about 1.5 billion cups, the British consume 3 billion. In the US it is estimated at 50 billion.

That beverage is consumed in a “paper” cup. Most people assume that the cup, because it is made of paper, is recyclable. Even the coffee shops will claim this when in fact this is not the reality. The only thing recyclable in the coffee cup is the paper sleeve put around the cup to keep your hand from getting too hot.

The paper in the cup is lined with plastic which makes it essentially unrecyclable and can take around 20 years to biodegrade. The plastic lid is made of a grade of plastic that is very hard to recycle and seldom ever is. And those compostable cups? They will only decompose under very specific conditions not available to the average consumer.

This means that even though you might have put your cup in the recycle bin, it will be diverted to the landfill. And we haven’t even touched on the energy and trees needed to create the cup in the first place. It’s an environmental disaster.

So what can we do to change this? Well, two solutions come to mind right away.

  1. If you are planning on staying at the coffee shop. Ask for or demand, because sometimes you have to, a ceramic cup. If you get up for a refill, ask for them to reuse your cup.

  2. If you must buy and dash, start bringing your own coffee mug.

Now, I have thought a lot about why more people don’t bring their own cups. It is not like reusable cups are hard to find in stores. There are two reasons, I figure, convenience, and the cool factor.

Convenience: Where do you put your mug on the way to the coffee shop and where do you store it on the way home. Now for women, this may be a little easier as we do tend to carry some form of a bag with us everywhere. One might say that men never carry bags however, a very cursory review of people heading to work in Toronto proved that most men were carrying some form of over the shoulder bag.

Cool factor: Carrying a coffee cup is perhaps associated with when we were kids and we carried a lunch box to school. Or perhaps it is equated to the nerdy look of those big ugly coffee mugs of the 80’s. Or perhaps we just want to show everyone where we got our coffee.

To quote Alison Potter writing for CHOICE the leading consumer advocacy group in Australia,

“The type of coffee and where you get it from says a lot about you. It’s a badge of sophistication, a signifier that you are in the know of where to get the best coffee.”

Consumer psychologist Paul Harrison agrees, saying that carrying that cup is about social norms and social cache, saying, “Even if we have environmental beliefs, it takes risk-taking behaviour to step outside of social norms”.

Potter concludes,

Embrace some risk-taking behaviour and buy yourself a reusable coffee cup that says you’re sophisticated and ‘in the know’. Then form a habit to use it daily (keep it in your bag).

I love this quote. It makes me want to do a little happy dance. I want to shout it from the rooftops. Plaster it all over billboards in every city in the world. How’s that for risk-taking behaviour.

It’s hard to fight convenience, I know. So it is nice to read about a British entrepreneur Martin Myerscough who has created a coffee cup where the plastic liner can be removed easily, allowing the cardboard portion of the cup to be recycled like normal paper. We’ll see if these cups make it to North America.

Another push happening here in Canada is provincial regulations determining what companies can sell, essentially calling “on companies that design and manufacture products to take on the responsibility of recycling them“.

If you do already carry your own cup I applaud you. If you have friends and family that do not, I encourage you to share the stats and info in this post. Let’s make carry your own coffee cups so cool that people can’t imagine not having one. Even better, lets design really cool bags with cup holders.

Other interesting articles and products.

Tim Hortons, Starbucks recycling claims may be garbage

Coffee cups among many items you actually can’t recycle, city says

UK’s billions of takeaway cups could each take ’30 years’ to break down

Caffeine hit: what happens to Britain’s 3bn empty coffee cups?