The Brewing Problem of the “To Go” Coffee Cup

Coffee-cup-EDIT

Coffee is the most common beverage after water for adults. Coffee is the most popular hot beverage and the number one food service beverage in Canada. 14 billion cups of coffee are consumed in Canada every year, and 35% of coffee is consumed “to go”.

Most of the “to go” coffee is being served in single-use cups. The impact of these cups causes wide-spread problems in both urban and rural communities. Disposable cups are becoming a major pollution hazard.

Disposable cups, lids and other coffee related products make up a significant amount of the items picked up annually in The Great Shoreline Cleanup Campaign

The City of Vancouver has recently directed staff to investigate potential regulatory options  to reduce the amount of coffee cup litter

A huge problem with “to go” is where the coffee cup is travelling and what we do with it when we no longer want it.    coffee cup litter

In British Columbia both foam and plastic coated paper coated coffee cups are recycled in a provincial EPR program for packaging ; this is a residential recycling program that brand owner’s like Tim Horton’s contribute to as a producer of packaging but the problem is the discarded cup does not travel to the consumer’s home to be placed in the recycling, instead it will be discarded when the coffee is either finished or not wanted anymore.

The average number of steps someone will carry garbage is twelve paces. Unfortunately many consumers are unwilling to carry the unwanted cup to find recycling, composting or disposal options. Providing these options on city streets, malls, beaches, highways, and parks has a cost.

Supplying composting or recycling options can only work if consumers use the service properly. A busy commuter may throw a coffee cup full of liquid into a recycling bin at an airport or train station into a recycling bin contaminating the newspapers and other products in the bin for recycling or a compostable coffee cup dropped on the ground at a park may look and smell like food to wildlife.

While all communities have “to go” options for take-out coffee not every community has options to deal with the discards. Vancouver, like other communities in Canada, actively promotes street food sales as part of the community plan but with this encouragement of this economic development the big picture costs of “to go” has not been anticipated. For many communities property taxes make the old style mom and pop coffee shop, where patrons sat over a cup of coffee, not financially viable.

Banning single-use coffee cups will impact many small businesses in communities and before doing this perhaps we need to look at alternatives.

In New Zealand a campus coffee shop is no longer selling coffee in single-use coffee cups instead the Eden Cafe is asking patrons to bring their own cups or take a ceramic cup to return. Their research showed that the majority of their patrons consumed the coffee 50 metres from the cafe. The cafe is also able to create drop off zones around the campus for the reusable ceramic cups.

Food vendors at Powell River Farmers Market also use ceramic cups that can be deposited at a washing station as do many zero waste events. Mobile dish mobiles may be an answer to eliminating waste when the cups are remaining in the area.

Creating deposit systems for refundable bottles has been successful at diverting recyclable products into recycling systems. In Vancouver, the one day Coffee Cup Revolution organized by The Binners Project, gave a 5 cent refund for single-use coffee cups, 55,000 cups were collected in downtown Vancouver.

Bans, deposit systems, recycling programs, and product design are methods that governments and business can work with to resolve the problems created by single-use cups but the success of these changes depends on the consumer. Years ago when coffee marketers looking to expand the market share convinced consumers of the convenience and ease of abandoning the office coffee pot or the thermos for coffee anytime and anyplace consumers embraced the “to go” way of life. Now realizing the impact of disposable cups we as consumers will be the ones to really create change.

As consumers it is the decisions we make that will make a difference.

If we want to avoid creating waste and wasting resources we have to make conscious changes in our behaviours and increase our awareness of the products we use including all end of life issues.

Even adopting reusable containers, we must resist our impulse of acquiring and discarding instead we must, as consumers lead the way to reducing and reusing and making things last.

Perhaps it is time to slow down our lifestyles so we sit down with a cup of coffee in a reusable cup and talk about a sustainable future.