The cost of your daily cup of coffee on the landfill

Filed in Blog, Guest Posts by on September 29, 2009 15 Comments
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Rachel shares her thoughts on disposable coffee cups

Rachel shares her thoughts on disposable coffee cups

Our second guest article this week is from Rachel Bee. Rachel is mum to three rapidly sprouting children and a small impish puppy and a  working as a childbirth teacher, doula and freelance writer in Edinburgh.

She has been living a nomadic existence with the family for the last five years in Belgium and then the US before trying out the Scottish wind for size.

She tries to  stay green, sane and awake, but not necessarily in that order. She can be contacted on richandrachbee AT yahoo DOT com or found blogging at Across the pond Life or At Home with Montessori.

Yesterday, Maisie shared her tips for reducing food waste. Rachel is on a mission to ban the disposable coffee cup!

Having recently returned from living in the US, I’ve come to realise that it’s the small everyday things that please me and that make such a big difference. Ordering my latte with a friend in Starbucks the other week I was asked if it was to drink in or take away. I was actually expecting a surcharge for the privilege of using their sofas, but no, it was actually to determine if they gave me a porcelain coffee mug or a throw away cup!

How easy is that? Supply proper washable coffee mugs to those that sit in. My local independent coffee house in the US went one step further than that and actually offered a small discount if you took away in your own reusable cup.

The curse of the paper cup is growing, along with our instant gratification society; “you need it, we got it…and fast!” We can drink on the run, eat on the run, eventually we’ll be able to bank, refill prescriptions and go to the library on the run – just like in many parts of the US. However, this need for takeaway comes the growth of the takeaway containers –  the Styrofoam food containers, aluminium trays and lids and cardboard cups coated with polyethylene to prevent them leaking.

In 2006 * Starbucks stated that their cup usage per annum had increased to over 2.3 million. Of course, these cups will then end up in the landfill…oh and not to mention, that’s only Starbucks, add onto that the approximate 23 billion other cups that will be thrown away from other coffee houses and we’re talking enormous land mass. If every person brought a reusable cup to Starbucks for just one day then we could save 1,181,600 tons of wood, 2,040,061,237 pounds of carbon dioxide, and 4,441,093,624 gallons of water!!**

The answer has to come in the form of education and practice. Most of us now carry reusable carrier bags for our shopping as an automatic thing. If your house is anything like ours, we are breeding them at a rate of knots, partly because they just look so nice *sigh*. So next time you pack up your bags to shop and you know you’ll pop into the coffee house on the way home, put in a reusable cup too. There are three fantabulous reasons to use these, apart from the obvious of course:

1. You can keep your coffee hotter for longer!
2. You know which latte has the caramel in when you’re taking out for the family.
3. You can coordinate your cup to match your wardrobe –  and if there is only one reason to go green, that has to be it!

Maybe what we should be doing is creating “Green retailer” awards or stickers for local coffee shops that try to reduce waste?

*source: Sustainability is sexy.

**source: Sustainable choices.

Edit: 12th october 2009; Starbucks offer 25p discount to anyone who takes their own reusable cup to the store for filling!

Edit: 22nd October 2009: From Starbucks website:

Q: When will Starbucks cups be 100% recyclable?

A: Starbucks ability to recycle varies based on the level of commercial and residential recycling services offered in our store communities. We are committed to making 100% of our cups reusable or recyclable by 2015. In the meantime, there are two ways you can help to reduce the environmental impact of our cups: ask for your beverage in a ceramic “for here” mug or use a “to go” commuter mug.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (15)

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  1. Sharon says:

    And it’s just much nicer to drink out of a proper china mug!

  2. Mr. Green says:

    if every person brought a reusable cup to Starbucks for just one day then we could save 1,181,600 tons of wood, 2,040,061,237 pounds of carbon dioxide, and 4,441,093,624 gallons of water!!

    That quote is quite incredible Rachel. What a terrible price we pay for quick easy convenience. Unfortunately we don’t see the global impact of those seemingly innocent every day choices, but collectively, the destructive effect on the environment is enormous.

    Thanks for an informative and provoking article. I did not appreciate how severe the problem was ’till reading this…

  3. John Costigane says:

    Rachel, Take-Away coffee is similar to other such purchases with litter and landfill, 2 negative outcomes. They should encourage and incentivize a reusable cup of whatever design. The consumer is left to deal with the waste and as usual the retailer has ‘passed the buck’. Consumers are left to promote change since there is little attention paid to the one-way trip to landfill for the paper cup.

  4. Rachel Bee says:

    Indeed John. Ultimately the solution is probably to fill our cups before leaving the house in the morning and give the coffee giants a real kick in the nuts…but how boring would that be? 😉

  5. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Rachel, I loved this article; thank you so much for writing it for us.
    It just goes to show how a simple daily ‘ritual’ can create so much waste and use so many resources down the line. It’s shocking when you think about it. But equally it could be rectified with some simple changes to habit and lifestyle.
    Really thought provoking stuff – thank you!

  6. one little convenience at a time, we have become spoiled: one small redeeming gesture at a time, we can reimburse mother earth.
    in all the depressing numbers, hides the optimistic answer. one step, one cup add a smile, good to go!

  7. LJayne says:

    I must check our local coffee houses as to whether they will fill your own cup for take-out. All the ones I can think of in my town – and we don’t have a Starbucks amazingly! – give you proper cups and mugs if you are drinking in. Which is SO much nicer. Especially Coffee Republic as they do nice big ones and when it is winter warming hot chocolate with added marshmallows, well, yum yum!

    A complete aside: My son’s school as an Eco Group. My current mission is to find out how much recycling goes on in the school canteen. They have an excellent kitchen and the meals get shipped out to other schools that done. Everything is made from scratch, even the daily pudding cakes – no packet mixes allowed. So based on my own kitchen they must produce an enormous amount of stuff that could be dealt with properly.

    My other bugbear is that the free milk for the nursery is supplied in tetrapaks. Our council will recycle these if householders deliver them to the civic amenity site (oh how I love that euphemism for “tip” !) but there must be something they can do for schools. I estimate Luke’s school must get through 7 or 8 THOUSAND of these each year.

  8. Hi Rachel – I love this and your stats that Mr G highlighted above (Mr G did you make it look so whizzy?).

    I bought one of the starbucks washable coffee mugs last year when I realised I was running late for an appointment and didn’t want to waste my coffee. I’ve used it lots of time since. It goes with me mostly everywhere, especially when I take trips into London.

    What really irks me though is when I give it to coffee bars to fill up, many automatically use one of their takeaway cups to measure out the coffee before pouring it in to my portable container. Last week at Peterborough station, the lady also offered me rest of the coffee that she couldn’t fit into my container. As she handed me the takeaway container as well as my container I felt momentarily defeated. I explained to her the whole point was to reduce waste and she looked at me blankly.

    However, the Starbucks concessions that I have come across have always been great at reducing waste and are used to the idea of the reusable coffee cups, which is great. 😀

    @LJayne I share your frustration about the milk in cartons. It’s caused one of our local preschools the same amount of difficulties. I believe our local recycling centre accepts recycling from schools as long as they fill in a form at the gate. It’s a bit of a faff, but worth it if it reduces waste. Alternatively, it might be worth contacting your local authority or Tetrapak Recycling to see if there are plans for siting a new carton recycling service in your locality. If so and the facilities are suitable, you could propose that it is located in your local community.

  9. Rachel Bee says:

    L.Jayne, totally hear you with the tetrapaks. We can’t get our tetrapaks recycled here for love nor money! It’s a pita!

    Almost Mrs Average: Oh yes, how COULD I have forgotten that! Costa seem to be able to manage it without the need for using disposable cups to measure out – it’s obviously beyond the folks at “the other place”! I think I’d have cried if it had been me at Peterborough station…kudos for not imploding!! 🙂

  10. oooh thanks for the tip re Costa. That’s another one to add to my list (I had considered buying a bigger cup – one size fits all kind of thing, but I don’t think it would fit into my handbag) 😀

  11. @LJayne:
    We have those tetrapaks at our school, and i contacted my council to ask about recycling them.

    Schools are classed as a business so it is actually cheaper to pay the landfill bill than the special recycling collection bill.

    We also have hot dinners shipped in from an outside caterer as we don’t have a big enough kitchen/facilities to cook on site. All waste is put into a bin bag at the end of the dinner and sent back to the caterer who told me he puts it in his landfill bins.

  12. @Sharon: I agree, although the environmental benefit is quickly lost if the cermanic cups do not get continuously recycled. If these cups are only used a couple of times the energy used to produce the items easily outstrips the environmental benefit.

    Robert Daniel
    Paper Cups

  13. Mrs Green says:

    @Event Supplies: Robert, I notice you are promoting disposable products on an article that is about how bad these can be for the landfill. is there something about your products that makes them environmentally friendly? Are they fully compostable, reusable, recyclable?

  14. Fresh says:

    Update on the Starbucks recycling: it never happened and, by their own admission, probably never will.

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