Everything in our world has been adapted for the fast paced life we develop for ourselves, always in a hurry, going from one place to the next, loading our lives with activities. The beverage industry also adapted to this grab-and-go culture, providing disposables for the required convenience of time efficient lifestyles. A disposable lifestyle comes with all kinds of consequences for the beautiful places we love, polluting shorelines, taking resources, and enlarging landfills. The disposable coffee (or tea) cup is part of this larger picture of waste and litter, expanding with every morning beverage purchase.
Everytime a hot drink is purchased in a single-use cup, it contributes to the 2 billion cups thrown out annually in Canada. To make these cups, about 840,000 trees are used to create the paper required, only for the cup to be in use for an hour, if it’s lucky. It might seem like an easy choice to buy a coffee in a disposable, but these cups require lots of resources to create and cause problems for recycling systems. Thankfully there are many great reusable alternatives, and many places that make it easy to do so!
Now, you might be thinking that buying a coffee isn’t a big deal if you just recycle your cup, however there are problems to this way of dealing with single-use cups. Most paper cups are lined with polyethylene, a thin plastic bonded to the paper in order to keep the drink from seeping out and turning the paper to pulp. This cup lining makes it difficult to recycle and separate material. When the cup is thrown out, it becomes “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”, and we never get to see what happens to it. The purchased disposable cup could see a few different futures…
First, the cup could be tossed into the blue bin, lid in tact, in a location that does not have a recycling system equipped to recycle cups. The cup will be accidently mixed into other recycled items and cause problems at the sorting stage. If it continues its journey, it could accidentally contaminate all of the other recycled items in the process of breaking it down. If this happens, all of the contaminated recyclables end up in the landfill instead, including the cup that contaminated them. Sometimes we may not know where an item belongs when it comes to waste management, and instead it gets thrown into the recycling in hope it could be recycled. This is called “wish-cycling”, and most of the time causes more problems than it’s worth.
On the second journey, the cup could be recycled properly in a municipality that allows cups, such as Vancouver BC. and Kawartha Lakes ON. In some areas, like Calgary AB, the cup is recyclable but the lid is not. To be recycled, the cup must first be rinsed and the lid removed, both recycled with other plastics. Unfortunately many waste facilities do not recycle paper cups or the lids, even if the lids say that they are recyclable. Cup lids are often too light in weight to go through the machinery, or are labeled with Plastic #6, deemed non-recyclable. The new style of lid at Tim Horton’s is a perfect example of this, saying the plastic material is recyclable but depending on where you live, sometimes the lid itself can not be recycled do to its size and weight. This is a great example of why it is always important to know what goes where in your location, as it’s not the same system everywhere.
Lastly, the cup could be thrown into the garbage and join most of the other paper cups, as many places can not recycle them. Unfortunately, none of these options are great in terms of sustainability, and in my opinion, the only solution is to not be a part of the problem, avoiding them and the recycling issues all together. Besides, it takes a whole lot of natural resources to create one single-use item!
Reusable cups make sure that paper ones stay out of the landfill, and there are so many beautiful, great quality travel mug options out there, my favourite being Yeti, hands down! Travel mugs are important to use on a consistent basis, for the reasons above and for the general health of the planet. As I’ve learned through my research this week, reusable options are not used enough and should be given more consideration. Starbucks has been offering a reusable cup reward since 1987 to encourage customers to use their own mug. But a reward system, is sometimes good in theory, and not completely effective in reality. In the Starbucks Global Responsibility Report they tallied 47.6 million drinks bought in a reusable mugs in 2014. Although this may seem like a large and successful number, it only made up 2% of their total global drink sales for that year. More recently, they successfully implemented a disposable cup fee in the UK, which increased the use of reusables to 5%. But this still means that billions of cups end up in the landfill each year just from one corporation! Of course there are billions of cups from other companies too, and millions of people buying disposable cups each day.
If there are so many reusable options out there, why do people choose to use disposables instead of reusables?
The answer is, it’s more convenient. To successfully use a reusable mug on a consistent basis, a change in personal behaviour is required. It depends on your willingness to slow down, perhaps even sit in a cafe to have your coffee instead of taking it to run. You then need to make sure you remember to bring a travel mug, just like remembering to bring grocery bags to the store every time you shop. You also have to accept the fact that you may need to carry your cup with you all the time. To be honest, none of these habit changes are difficult, they are just different then the to-go culture people have become accustomed to. It is a change in mindset, making a conscious decision to refuse a single-use cup by using your own. That’s it.
There is a company based in Fernie BC that is an amazing leader in sustainable cup options, that others can surely aspire to. A cafe called Big Bang Bagels, decided to move completely away from disposable cup options. Instead, they give guests a few different choices: sit in, bring your own cup, buy a reusable in the cafe, or rent a mug. Renting a travel mug costs $8, and upon return you recieve $7.25 back. They ran a trial of the idea in April 2019 and are still successfully using these zero waste options.
By giving alternatives to paper cups, and not giving the option to choose a disposable one, this small company is effectively encouraging healthy substitutes to enjoying a coffee and having your own source of cup. This idea significantly impacts the amount of waste they generate, and how others rethink the idea of a cup.
WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW?
The change of the cup starts with those who buy the beverages, remembering to bring your own every time yielding less waste and need for disposable cup production. If you pretend the option for a disposable isn’t there, you are probably more likely to prepare accordingly and bring your own every time. If you do use a cup every now and then or even pick a littered one up, when in doubt throw it out. I know this sounds terrible, but unless you have done your research and are knowledgeable about the waste management in that specific area, the material could contaminate actual recyclables.
And lastly, remember that every small scale action like skipping a cup and bringing your own has the potential to contribute to a larger positive impact. Your pint sized impact of using your own mug could tumbleweed into a mountain of advocation.
Margaret Morales. “Why You’re Still not Bringing a Reusable Mug for Your Daily Coffee”, Sightline Institute, https://www.sightline.org/2016/03/08/why-youre-still-not-bringing-a-reusable-mug-for-your-daily-coffee/, 2016.
Starbucks Global Responsibility Report 2014, http://globalassets.starbucks.com/assets/ea2441eb7cf647bb8ce8bb40f75e267e.pdf
The City of Calgary, What Goes Where, https://www.calgary.ca/UEP/WRS/Pages/What-goes-where/Paper-Cups.aspx