The second most common question asked by a barista is: "Would you like that for here, or to go?" In my experience on bar, most people choose to take away. Even if the customer decides to sit and stay, they tend to enjoy the optionality that comes with a portable cup.
The to-go culture has run rampant in our society. The convenience that it affords has become invaluable to coffee drinkers and cafes alike. Customers can seamlessly integrate hot beverages into their fast paced lives, and businesses can use to-go cups to churn out volume while turning them into mini billboards to market the heck out of their brands. In fact, the branded disposable cup has become so trendy Instagramers show up to shops just to snap a few pictures with designer single-use cups in hand. Happy customers, increased volume and brand exposure: It's a win, win, situation. Right?
The trouble with the to-go cup arises as soon as you start to question it. What is it made of? What is it leaching into my beverage? Where does it end up once I throw it out? And, how long does it take to decompose? The answers are unpleasant. I was shocked when I first learned that the typical plastic lid is made of polystyrene (or styrofoam) which is not readily recyclable, and takes hundreds of years to deteriorate but it never biodegrades. The point being, it doesn't take a lot of digging to realize that, as an industry, we have collectively perpetuated a to-go coffee culture that is devastatingly unsustainable.
With roasters starting to shed light on sustainable and fairly traded coffee farming practices, customers (millennials in particular) are willing to pay substantially more for beans that come with a positive impact story. It's time to grab the bull by the horns on this to-go cup crisis and address it head on—together.
In 2014 I wrote a piece called "Anatomy of a To-Go Cup." It has been by far my most well received and shared article to date. This leads me to believe that our coffee community wants to engage with the truth about this stuff. We just don't know how to act on it. We don't know how to cut out the single-use cup while still being competitive and turning a profit. We haven't quite figured out how to incentivize our customers and ourselves to do business differently.
At the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Event this past weekend, I made it my project to find the most environmentally friendly single-use cup on the showroom floor. After walking what felt like fifteen football field lengths of a florescent lit expo, and chatting to nearly a dozen packaging distributors and manufacturers, I was pretty disappointed with the results of my highly unscientific research. However, there is some good news.
For a little context on my findings, the least expensive and most common to-go coffee cup is made of paper and lined with polyethylene. Polyethylene is made from petroleum or natural gas and it needs to be properly disposed of since it never biodegrades. When paper is lined with polyethylene, it is not recyclable. Thus, the typical single-use cup can not be recycled. Polyethylene is also suspected of leaching harmful chemicals and endocrine disruptors at room temperature. Now pour your piping hot hand-brewed coffee into a polyethylene lined cup and top it off with a typical styrofoam lid. Ingest. Toss it out. Repeat.
The expo taught me that the compostable cups you've probably seen around town with green stripes and eco inspired logos, are the best bet when it comes to single use. They are sometimes made in the USA with paper that is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The responsibly sourced paper is then lined with PLA, or polylactic acid, which is a plastic derived from sugars found in plants (mostly corn and sugar cane). A company called NatureWorks manufactures a PLA named Ingeo and, it is my understanding, that this product made up most of the compostable single-use paper cups, compostable iced drink cups, and compostable lids on the showroom floor. It's no surprise coffee retailers spend roughly 30% more sourcing these products than their eco-unfriendly counterparts.
Trouble arises when we look at the life-cycle of one of these compostable cups. In a commercial compost facility, PLA will take anywhere from 45 to 180 days to break down. In a landfill, where the majority of our single use compostable cups end up, they will not biodegrade. And, if a compostable cup is thrown into a recycling bin, it will contaminate the recycling process. Most people aren't aware of this—myself included, prior to doing this research—and, as it turns out, most cafes and many cities haven't implemented the infrastructure to properly separate and treat this kind of waste.
As I see it, the rise of the more-eco-friendly disposible culture has us addressing a symptom and not facing the reality of our wastefulness. Compostable cups actually encourage us to maintain our unconscious single-use habits by assuaging some of our environmental guilt. They do not change our behavior. They do not solve the problem.
Alas, the issue of our disposable coffee culture is a complex one. As business owners, changing the psychology behind convenience based transactions is going to require a shit ton of creativity and a significant amount of risk.
Sometimes I like to imagine what I would do if I was a cafe owner facing this challenge. I have not come up with a perfect solution to my hypothetical problem yet, but I have some ideas, questions, comparisons that might lead to some creative ways to think about how we can begin to propel our specialty coffee industry into a more sustainable one:
1. Look to Sustainable Specialty Coffee Industry Leaders
Bar Nine in Los Angeles: Bar Nine opened their cafe and roastery in 2014 with the motto of "do business better." In an effort to put sustainability at the forefront, this Culver City hot-spot does not offer any single-use cups to their customers. If you want to take-away Bar Nine has an honor system that allows you to borrow a reusable glass and return it upon your next visit. They have also implemented a "thank-you program" which treats customers who bring back 12 reusable glass cups at once to a drink of their choice. In addition, Bar Nine's cafe and roastery is currently 60% solar powered.
"...the thing we found with the glass-only to-go program, is that once people understood why we made that choice and the benefits of doing so, we’ve seen tremendous support and love for the program." - Zayde Naquib, Bar Nine
Eden Cafe on New Zealand's South Island: This university cafe recently banned single-use cups after realizing they were handing out over 1000 disposable cups per week. Instead, they are asking customers to bring their own reusable cup or borrow a second hand one they provide (purchased at a local charity shop). Eden Cafe expected a drop in business after implementing this change, but they haven't seen it yet.
Lemonjellos in Holland, Michigan: Lemonjello's does things a little differently. They have a Zero Waste program, which means their shop produces less than 1 trash bag of waste per day. In order to achieve this, they have removed public trash cans and instead customers place their waste in the dish bin where it is sorted by employees. Since Lemonjello's has a lot of through traffic, they do offer single-use cups, however they give financial incentives to their customers to reduce and reuse. If you order a coffee to stay at Lemonjello's it costs 25¢ less than a coffee to-go and it is (intentionally) 2oz bigger. Bringing in your own travel mug, or reusing your paper cup from yesterday will also get you a 50¢ discount on your beverage of choice.
"When I realized that we couldn't avoid it [single use cups], I decided to find a way to offer an incentive that the environmentally conscious would go for. For those less concerned with it, it becomes a longer term conversation that hopefully, eventually gets them to start doing it. We find, though, that the longer folks are regular customers, the more they want to align with our Zero Waste program... at least when they're at the café." - Matthew Scott, Lemonjello's
2. Look to the Wine Industry
Many parallels have been drawn between the specialty coffee and wine industries, but have we taken a moment to compare our beverage receptacles? Drinking wine out of anything but a glass is a faux-pas. For coffee it's anything goes.
What is more, if you attend a wine expo, you pick up a glass upon entering, and continue to reuse it for the remainder of the event. If you attend a specialty coffee focused event, you often get a brand new (albeit small) single-use cup with every shot of espresso, cold brew or pour over you sample. The Re:co Symposium Coffee Bar and Barista Guild Cafe at this years' SCAA Event did a great job of supplying reusable glass and ceramics. However, the showroom floor at the Expo was another story.
Yes, rinsing wine out of a glass at a trade show is an easier proposition than cleaning coffee and milk soiled ceramics, but I am sure if we put our heads together, there is a solution.
The questions are: Are we not valuing coffee enough to require that it be served in ceramic or glass cups at our industry's most important and well attended events? Can we change the collective perception of coffee by presenting it in a less disposable way? Could making this kind of shift actually add value to specialty coffee as a whole?
3. Look to Italian Coffee Culture
I'll be the first to admit I am no expert on Italian culture, however upon visiting a few times I did notice some glaring difference between their coffee rituals and ours. Italians seem to take their coffee breaks seriously in that they actually take a break to drink their coffee.
In other words, if you pull up to a roadside gas station in rural Italy it's likely you will find an adjacent coffee bar full of customers taking a moment to sip espresso out of a ceramic demitasse. It's not part of their culture to take coffee to-go. These espresso bars are often standing room only, which encourages patrons to drink somewhat quickly, and allows for high volume turn over. Being that espresso is often the drink of choice, and is significantly smaller than a 16oz latte, a large investment of time isn't required for an Italian style coffee break.
Of course, there are tons of cafes that follow a similar model in Italian cities, too. I chose to use roadside coffee shops as an example simply because drivers are on-the-go by nature and seem to have more incentive to choose a take-away cup.
So a few questions are: What can Italian espresso culture teach us? How can we rebrand specialty coffee as something that deserves taking an actual break for? Could we encourage more of an espresso focused culture in North America? Would this change the way we design our coffee bars?
4. Look to Grocery Stores' Reusable Bag Policies
The single-use plastic grocery store bag is an environmental nightmare yet it's been something food markets have been expected to give their customers upon check out for decades. In recent years, however, many cities have implemented plastic bag bans which have forced grocery stores to reassess how they do business. A ban on single-use coffee cups may not be far off. Can we make changes to our to-go cup policy before we are required to by law?
Many grocery stores have implemented bag policies that either charge customers for single use bags, or give discounts to those that bring their own. In short, what was once expected without question and for free, we now have to request and pay for. It is not a perfect system, but studies have shown that, if customers are explicitly asked to approve or decline and item, they become more conscious of it and it's potential impact.
So, what can we learn from grocery stores? Perhaps it's that single use packaging need not be given to customers for free. There is often and up-charge for almond milk and vanilla syrup, why isn't there an up-charge for a single use cup? The cost of to-go cups is often baked into the pricing of a cup of coffee. Could shops reveal these hidden costs by adding on a takeaway convenience fee to raise some awareness. How will that impact the bottom line?
5. Look to Instagrammers, Social Media & Other Culture Influencers
Coffee culture and social media are intertwined. There are a gazillion websites, lifestyle blogs, and Instagram pics that feature coffee. Documenting where we have been and what we are consuming is social media currency. More specifically, having the right designer disposable coffee cup in hand can garner attention and likes.
People, brands and companies with tons of followers have the capacity to drive business and influence our industry. Can we collectively make the decision to influence specialty coffee responsibly? Before we post the next photo can we ask ourselves; What message am I sending? And, as a result, what impact am I having on our culture and our environment?
Some things to think about: Can we become more aware of our online presence? Are we promoting a disposable coffee culture? Does what we "like" on Instagram line up with our values? Can we unfollow the single-use and together make and effort to rebrand the reusable cup as the true coffee hero? #GoodCoffeeIsForHere
Perhaps the coffee industry is facing an issue of responsibility. What if as businesses, we were held responsible for the disposal of every single-use coffee cup that we handed out? What if as consumers, we were held responsible for every piece of trash we produced? Maybe if we each took responsibility, we would be incentivized to make different choices.
I am not a scientist, economist or psychologist, and as you can see, I certainly don't have the answers to our disposable coffee culture conundrum. Ultimately, it would be great to see the cups we choose to use reflect the high quality and value of the specialty coffee we are pouring in them—for our health, and the health of the planet.
"The scary part of climate change is not acting... The future of coffee depends on all of us working together" - Re:co Atlanta