How has this icon become synonymous with our coffee drinking experience? I am a big advocate for sustainability. My former blog was a sustainability blog and I spent a year retraining myself to carry my own mug to coffee shops in effort to be a better steward of the earth.
Today, I'm back in the habit of asking for a to-go cup without a second thought. The only thing I almost always opt out of is taking a plastic lid. But, is choosing not to take the lid really making a huge difference? Do paper cups just biodegrade?
With these questions at hand, I spent some time researching the individual components of our modern coffee cup in order to better educate myself on their makeup and environmental costs of our collective consumption habit.
Investigating the impact of our use of disposable coffee cups, sleeves and lids and their material make up is unsettling, to say the least. The global consumption of coffee is upwards of 500 billion cups per year, so logically, any materials sourced and manufactured for single use consumer distribution have profound effects upon our planet . There is even a Cup Summit hosted to address this issue within the industry.
As regular consumers and supporters of our favorite coffee shops, we are ethically responsible to see our part in the problem. Although this topic is worthy of many blog posts (and dissertations!), today I have gathered a few facts and stats on each component of the conventional coffee cup that I find particularly interesting and enlightening.
1. The Lid
- Made of Polystyrene which is not accepted in curbside recycling programs
- Polystyrene may leach toxins into food products, especially when heated
- Polystyrene is used to make styrofoam and is classified as a grade 6 plastic
- Of all the plastics it has been advised to AVOID use of grade 6 plastics all together
- after throwing it 'away,' a polystyrene lid will continue to exist for hundreds of years.
- Polystyrene has the potential to transfer toxic chemicals into the food chain because it eventually breaks into smaller pieces and animals often mistake it for food.
2. The Sleeve
- Though the majority of sleeves are made of recycled material, most sleeves don’t end up being recycled.
- Unrecycled sleeves make up about 2.8 billion pounds of trash every year in landfills
- A coffee drinker can save 6-10 lbs of paper waste every year by simply substituting the cardboard sleeve with a reusable sleeve.
- 3 billion hot cup sleeves were produced in 2011
3. The Cup
- Most paper cups are coated with plastic a low density polyethylene or grade 4 plastic which means they cannot be composted or recycled.
- Paper cups may consume more non-renewable resources than cups made of styrofoam
- Paper cups are generally manufactured from virgin materials.
- In 2006, Over 6.5 million trees were cut down to make 16 billion paper cups used by US consumers only for coffee in 2006, using 4 billion US gallons of water and resulting in 253 million pounds of waste.
- Overall, North Americans use 58% of all paper cups, amounting to roughly 130 billion paper cups.
- Today it is estimated twenty million trees are cut down every year just to manufacture paper cups.
In conclusion, our To Go culture of coffee is not sustainable. It is damaging to the environment and our health. Today I am pledging to break my own habit of using paper cups and advocating that you also bring your own reusable to-go cup to your local shop, or sit for 15 minutes and enjoy a warm beverage in a ceramic cup at your cafe. Did you know, you can even ask Starbucks for a, "for here" cup?
Doing research like this makes me respect cafe's like Los Angeles' Bar Nine Collective who do not to offer paper or plastic products to their customers but instead the serve their coffee in reusable glass jars.
I am also appreciative of any cafes that supply compostable cups, sleeves and lids. Every little bit counts.