Coffee Cup Waste - The Problem

coffee cup

Over 25 billion cups are used every year in the US alone. That’s enough to circle the earth 98 times

    What's wrong with coffee cups?

    The simple answer: in almost all cases, they're not recyclable and they’re not that great at being compostable.  

    Two heart breaking facts:

    • Over 25 billion cups are used every year in the US alone. That’s enough to circle the earth 98 times[1] and weigh 1.6 billion pounds (the same weight as approximately 2M elephants)
    • Canadians used over 1.5 billion coffee cups. The equivalent to more than half a million trees. And that was in 2010...[2]

    Disposable coffee cups are lined with polyethylene. This material helps keep your coffee warm and keeps the cup from mixing with the content of your drink (as per drink ware regulations)[3].

    The problem is the polyethylene lined cups are expensive and complicated to recycle, which leads to a very, very limited number of places that are willing to go through with the process.

    To makes matters worse, we also have to deal with different types of cups (paper, Styrofoam, plastic), cup sleeves, double cupping and the plastic lids (which are also mostly non recyclable)[4].  

    This considerably increases the difficulty of streamlining a simply process for communities wanting to deal with the paper cup problem.

    Why is this happening?

    Surprisingly, there seems to be a general lack of knowledge surrounding the implications of disposable cups. Most people don’t know that they cannot be recycled.[5]

    Three additional reasons standout in the reluctance to adopt a more sustainable cup of coffee: the behavioural reaction to taxing versus incentivesstatus and convenience.

    Let’s dive quickly into each of these.

    A tax (or a negative reinforcement) is known to have a superior results over a bonus or discount (positive reinforcement) of the same value[6]. Ask yourself what would create a stronger emotional response, finding a 100$ or losing a 100$? The same concept applies to our consumption behaviours.

    It begs the question, what if instead of offering a 0.10$ discount (like Starbucks), we presented everyone with a 0.10$ tax for not bringing their own mug? Many stores and chaines have already started to this with plastic bags.

    Then there’s status. A quick look at Instagram (and almost anyone’s Instagram for that case) and you’ll find heaps of pictures of coffee cups. Starbucks has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon that individuals are proud to associate with[7].

    This concept, fuelled by our natural desire to share our status through various social media outings, has extended to almost all indie coffee shops. Taking a picture of [insert local coffee shop name]’s coffee cup is seen as trendy outing, instead of a bad way of consuming coffee (as it should be). This has even led to coffees being drunk in paper or Styrofoam cups even when it’s being consumed inside the cafe! 

    #Starbucks (via Instagram)

    Finally, there’s the irrefutable convenience issue. With 9-to-5 jobs, school and social activities, we spend extended periods of time out of our living headquarters. With limited space in our everyday luggage, it’s easy to forgo an additional piece of hardware, especially one that takes up space, needs washing between uses and can end up stinking and spilling following a defect or user mistake.

    It’s understandably easier to grab a free disposable cup on our way out. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

    How can we reduce the impact of disposable cups?

    Reusable Cups

    Reusable cups are currently the easiest and fastest way to make a difference because you don’t need anybody else’s help or permission. By grabbing a reusable cup every day, you’re reducing your environmental 365 days a year.

    A changed daily action has a significant impact over the years. If you’re up to the discipline of washing and carrying a cup we recommend checking out our favorite portables mugs from KeepCup, Andy+ (that’s us!), Stanley, Klean Kanteen and Frank Green. You can even use a basic mason jar! 

    Better Disposable Cups

    Alternatives disposable cups actually exist.  

    They’re just not popular yet.

    Many companies are now able to replace the polyethylene with non toxic materials such as polylactic acid (PLA). These cups are coated with renewable resources (like corn starch) and are a 100% biodegradable. It’s the best option for a one-time use cup. 

    For more information you can check out Eco Products and Green Paper Products (or just google "environmental friendly coffee cups). 

    Mug Sharing

    More creative initiatives also exist.

    The Western Washington University campus has created a mug-sharing program. The concept is simple: all University cafes are required to offer their drinks in reusable mugs. Multiple drop-off points are installed across campus to allow students to conveniently dispose of their cups after class.

    It’s the same idea as collecting trays and utensils.

    What a difference it would make to similar projects appear in other university, businesses and even cities.

    In the end

    Like most environmental concerns, solutions exist and they’re just waiting to be implementing. And really, what’s keeping us from moving forward? We’re all stakeholders where the planet is concerned. 

    Let’s keep the flow of discussion going and try to wake the gatekeepers of the industry.

    If you’re a student, office worker or cafe owner, become part of the change. Every action counts.


    [1] http://www.sustainablelafayette.org/monthly-tips/kick-the-paper-coffee-cup-habit/

    [2] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/recycling-campaign-1.3645025

    [3] http://www.sustainabilityissexy.com/facts.html

    [4] http://www.sfu.ca/sustainability/talking/waste/2014/confused-about-coffee-cups.html

    [5] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/recycling-campaign-1.3645025

    [6] https://www.princeton.edu/~kahneman/docs/Publications/prospect_theory.pdf

    [7] http://news.temple.edu/news/historian-studies-starbucks%E2%80%99-cultural-implications

    Like this post? Like coffee? Well maybe, just maybe, you'll enjoy our coffee travel mugs. You can check them out here. We think their pretty but the coolest part is that 10% of all sales are donated to our not-for-profit partner Cup for Education to help develop education in the poor rural coffee communities of Latin America. Oh, and they keep your coffee warm for, like, a really long time.