Saturday, February 25, 2012

The “To-Go” Cup of Coffee: How Can We Make it More Sustainable?

By Bliss Sando

Unfortunately, not many people actively participate in sustainable everyday practices.  A good example of this is our obsession as Americans with the "to-go" cup of coffee.  How many of those thermal cardboard and Styrofoam cups do we really need to use?  Bring your own travel mug, for Earth's sake!  Here are some of the environmental problems caused by our excessive use of disposable coffee cups.
First off, most paper coffee cups are NOT made from recycled paper.  Many are made entirely from 100% bleached virgin paperboard (essentially new paper), and those who advertise their use of recycled paper (like coffee giant Starbucks) often use only a small percentage of recycled paper, the rest being new paper.  Secondly, the manufacturing process of paper cups uses a large amount of resources (namely water, energy, and a whole lot of trees).  The third, and potentially the most troublesome, problem with these hot cups is that during the manufacturing process they are covered with a plastic resin called polyethylene.  This substance that coats the cardboard helps to prevent leaks and keep your beverage warm, but also prevents the cups from being recycled.  It is unfortunately not common knowledge that any cup laminated with this polyethylene substance is not recyclable, and therefore will end up in a landfill.  Once in the landfill, these cups begin their decomposition process, which releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is a contributor to climate change.

The website entitled “Sustainability is Sexy” has compiled the chart below to give consumers an idea of exactly how many disposable cups we use, as well as the resources involved in their production:


To some, the answer may seem easy.  Why don’t cup manufacturers find a way to produce recyclable cups?  Well, the fact is that the process of recycling is energy intensive in itself, so we as consumers must simply use less.  One way to do so is by using our own reusable mugs.  These mugs are available in ceramic, glass, stainless steel, and even plastic.  And get this: most of these mugs are made to be used up to 3,000 times!  Although the process of producing reusable cups uses more resources, their durability causes their use to be much more environmentally friendly in the long run.  So, let's weigh the ups and downs.  Paper and Styrofoam cups can only be used once, and are TERRIBLE for the environment because of the resources that they use up in production and the steady stream of waste that they cause.  Reusable cups can be used thousands of times, have a positive environmental impact, and can save both consumers and coffee retailers money!

I, like many Americans, love my coffee.  I almost always have a cup in my hand, wherever I am.  About two years ago, I realized that I was using up to five paper or Styrofoam cups per day.  I purchased a few different travel mugs, which are sold at most coffee retailers and grocery stores.  Now, I brew my own coffee in the morning, and fill up my reusable mug.  When I need a refill during the day, I bring my mug to a coffee shop, and they are always happy to rinse and refill it for me with a drink of my choice.  Most coffee retailers even give a discount to those who bring their own reusable mugs!  This simple practice of bringing your own cup results in less garbage in your car, and a lower cost for your beloved cup of coffee.  If you are a coffee-drinking consumer, you can’t beat it.  If you don’t have your own reusable mug, you can order one at the “Sustainability is Sexy” website. 

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