With the start of a new year, it’s time again to decide on some resolutions to take into 2018 to make our lives and the lives of those around us a bit better. As always, some resolutions will fall by the wayside, some we might stick with for a few months, and a few of our resolutions might become the norm. Some resolutions are grandiose (“I’m going to work out more!”) others more modest (“I’m going to stop eating popcorn before bed!”), but let me suggest a resolution that is entirely attainable and will have meaningful impact on your environment: Break up with the disposable paper cup.
In Canada, over 1.5 billion disposable coffee cups, equivalent to as much paper as over half a million trees, are thrown away each year. In Whitehorse, it’s estimated that 20,000 cups are thrown away each week, and in Vancouver, the cups make up about 22% of the on-street garbage stream, costing the city millions of dollars to deal with. Our dependence on convenience has resulted in a cycle of growing waste, but these disposable cups are easy to give up, and there’s no time like the present.
Disposable coffee cups are a growing environmental burden
Most disposable coffee cups are made from paper but have a polyethylene or wax lining,which makes them difficult to recycle. Some municipalities can recycle these cups but these are few, and in places that do recycle them, most people are unaware that they can be recycled.
Many shops offer compostable coffee cups, which is great, if they get thrown in the compost. Often there are few compost options around for the cup to go into, and the average number of steps someone will carry garbage is only twelve paces. Unfortunately many consumers are unwilling to carry the cup to find composting options, and they end up in the landfill where they last hundreds of years and contribute to the production of methane, whose greenhouse gas effect is 25 times that of carbon dioxide.
Bring your own
Impressed by a friend’s decision to quit using disposable cups, I decided I would get a reusable mug, but I would often forget it and have coffee in a paper cup anyways, plastic lid and all. As time drew on and my understanding of the global issues of waste evolved, I decided that to do this effectively I would have to strengthen my resolve.
I decided that if on any given day I forgot to bring my mug, or didn’t have time to use one at the coffee shop, I would skip coffee that day. In this way, I created a negative consequence for forgetting to bring my mug. On those days I forgot and couldn’t have my coffee, the act of missing out created incentive to consciously remember my cup wherever I went.
The cup for me was an old ceramic mug I “inherited” when I moved out of my parents’ house. It was a good size, and I always preferred the taste of coffee from a ceramic mug. It didn’t have a lid, so I would be forced to stop and smell the coffee, or to tread carefully when carrying a full cup, but it was a convenient enough size that I could comfortably carry it everywhere, and I saved a bit of money with each cup, as most businesses offer a discount for bringing in a reusable mug.
The key? Find a mug you love, one you enjoy drinking out of, and you’re much more likely to bring it with you every day.
I’ll admit there are lots of less than ideal travel mugs out there. Some don’t keep the coffee hot, and some keep it so hot that you have to wait hours before it’s a drinkable temperature. KeepCup makes some funky, sustainably made coffee mugs that are great for specialty coffee and come in all sizes. For those on the move, I can’t say enough good things about my Stanley 16oz Thermos. It’s not too big, has a cup, and keeps things hot for hours. On top of that, it has a lifetime warranty.
Spend a little time looking and you’ll find the right mug for you, then the only thing you’ll have to do is remember to bring it!
Solutions to the coffee conundrum
It would be wonderful if we could all wake up tomorrow and stop using disposable cups, but that’s unlikely. Fortunately, there are many people and organizations working at reducing our consumption of disposable coffee cups.
We’ve seen how beverage container deposit systems are successful at diverting recyclables from landfills, could the same system work for coffee cups? In Vancouver, where 2.6 million cups are thrown away every week, The Binners’ Project is exploring what a refund-deposit system for coffee cups would look like. They hosted a one day “Coffee Cup Revolution” where they offered a 5 cent refund for every disposable cup brought in.
In 3 hours, they collected over 53,000 cups, and project leader Ken Lyotier didn’t beat around the bush when discussing the issue:
“We’re chopping down half a million trees a year in Canada to provide ourselves with these disposable cups, which we ship out to the dump, and we can’t afford to build decent, affordable housing for our very poorest citizens — there’s something very off-kilter here.”
Lyotier is right, and even though paper coffee cups are covered under an EPR program for packaging, the City of Vancouver is exploring potential regulations to further reduce coffee cup waste.
At UNBC, they started the ‘Borrow-A-Mug’ program, setting up stations on campus where reusable mugs can be borrowed if needed, and then dropped off to be washed by volunteers. Other universities are employing this new strategy as a way to move towards Zero Waste on campus. We’ve all been in the coffee line and realized we left our mug at home, so this is a great way to provide reusable cups for students on the go.
Similarly, a New Zealand Cafe challenged the norm and did away with takeout cups altogether. Instead, they offered repurposed ceramic mugs they got at thrift shops and other recycling stores. The mugs could simply be taken and dropped off later, and the shop saw no decrease in business like they expected. By taking away the option of a disposable cup they’re encouraging their customers to rethink their behaviour, and eventually people get used it.
Change the story about convenience
There are lots of great initiatives tackling the issues associated with our disposable culture, and we’re still discovering the consequences of convenience. What it will take to change is people like you deciding enough is enough. Individual actions have merit, so if you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, ditch the disposable cup! Get out there and find a mug you love! You’ll enjoy your coffee more, and you’ll dramatically reduce your waste! Furthermore, you’ll be showing people there are alternatives and demonstrating a real solution to the issue of disposable cup waste. In the words of Lindsay Miles from Treading My Own Path, “you’ll be changing the story about convenience”, making reusable cups a little more socially acceptable and disposable cups a little less so.
Forgot your travel mug at home? Stop and smell the coffee (literally) by enjoying your cup at the café in a real mug, or dare I say it, skip the coffee?
Happy New Year!
Chad Berndt. 2013. Wake up and smell the coffee. Retrieved from: https://talkintrashwithuhn.com/2013/05/08/wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee/
CBC News. 2014. Coffee cups recycled for 5-cent refund in Vancouver. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/coffee-cups-recycled-for-5-cent-refund-in-vancouver-1.2789576
Durocher et al. 2014. Methane fluxes show consistent temperature dependence across microbial to ecosystem scales. Nature 507: 488–491
Chad Pawson. 2017. Vancouver seeks ideas to stem tide of cups, containers and bags. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/single-use-waste-strategy-consultation-city-of-vancouver-1.4420041
Brianne Tolj. 2016. Cafe BANS disposable takeaway coffee cups telling customers they can either bring their own or drink out of old crockery from second-hand shops. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3470576/Cafe-bans-disposable-takeaway-coffee-cups-favour-old-crockery.html#ixzz53AIt6hvC
Zero Waste Canada. 2017. The brewing problem of the to-go coffee cup. Retrieved from: http://zerowastecanada.ca/the-brewing-problem-of-the-to-go-coffee-cup