How Green is Your Coffee?

University life is intertwined with coffee culture. Whether it’s waking up early to study accompanied by a cup of something warm or going to a coffee shop with a laptop to get in some writing time, university students love their caffeine. Most coffee shop patrons do not stop to think about the garbage that their favourite brews create, but the waste generated by those lightweight cups is a becoming a big problem throughout North America. Calculating the amount of waste that our love affair with caffeine generates results in some staggering numbers. The environmental group Green Calgary estimates that, on average, one urban coffee chain location uses 3000 cups per day and, in Calgary alone, a total of 62 million cups are used each year. However, despite these estimates, nobody is prepared to offer solid solutions.

Disposable coffee cups are just one component of the growing trend of what Green Calgary calls C.U.Ps, or Completely Unnecessary Products, alongside bottled water, cheap fashion, and a growing number of gadgets that ultimately end up in the landfill after a single or limited use. A 2009 McMaster University study that looked into the use and sustainability of disposable cups calculated that a paper cup becomes garbage within 15 minutes of use. If each coffee shop patron purchased one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, approximately 23 lbs of waste would be created in one year.

The prevalence of disposable cups is relatively recent. In their earlier years of operation, both Starbucks and Tim Hortons used non-disposable mugs in-store and paper cups were only used for takeout orders. The growing environmental awareness of the dangers of CFC’s led to Styrofoam beverage cups becoming virtually obsolete and paper cups were seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative. But the shift to coffee chains exclusively adopting disposable paper cups began when they realized that the energy and time required to wash the non-disposable mugs affected their operating costs and, ultimately, their profits.

Go into any coffee shop chain and you will notice that each sells its own range of branded, reusable mugs. In fact, most coffee aficionados own at least one travel mug. But the number of coffee purchases by those who take in their reusable mugs is miniscule compared with of the amount of coffee purchased in disposable cups. There are more people walking around with their paper coffee cup, logo prominently displayed as a kind of cachet, than there are who carry a travel mug. Most coffee shop patrons would probably say they just forgot to bring their own mug or that it wasn’t worth the small discount given on the price of their coffee to haul around their mug all day. Quite simply, paper cups are just more convenient. And besides, they are made of paper and can be easily recycled, right?

Despite paper cups proclaiming they are made from a percentage of post-consumer recycled paper and are recyclable where facilities exist, the ability to recycle the cups is more myth than reality. They are not accepted in most municipal “blue bin” recycling schemes because of the type of paper used, which often contains waxes, and because the paper is stained after use. The technology for recycling paper cups exists, but the cost is currently prohibitive. There are also cups available that are compostable, but these are not ideal either because unless the cups have access to air and sunlight they are as non-biodegradable as regular paper cups. The McMaster study also noticed that, currently, cups are not separated out of normal garbage. So if mass recycling is to happen, it will require a conscious effort by coffee companies. The current situation of depositing them in landfills is definitely not ideal because the paper leads to leaching of the chemicals used for the paper’s bleaching. In terms of volume, disposable cups take up a massive amount of landfill space because they are not crushed before disposing, and finding landfill space is becoming more difficult. And yet, countless disposable cups are being added daily to landfills. Unless there is realization about the environmental impact, the waste levels will eventually reach a crisis point.

Consumers are often oblivious to the economic and environmental costs from disposable cups because they just don’t think about what happens to it after the beverage is drunk and the cup is trashed. Since the cost of the cup is embedded in the price of the beverage, people are not aware of what it takes to manufacture, ship, and dispose of the single-use containers. They are often more concerned with the quality of the product they are drinking, such as whether it is organic or fairly traded, but the receptacle it comes in is not given consideration. Organizations such as Green Calgary are urging corporations and provincial and local governments to discuss the waste problem created by disposable cups, but they know that they face a difficult battle. For now, the environmental issue of coffee cup waste remains a personal decision. If people began to equate disposable cups with wastefulness instead of convenience, then the true price our love of coffee might begin to be addressed. On the other hand, breaking our dependency on disposable cups might turn out to be just as difficult as trying to give up coffee altogether.

Carla is an AU student and a caffeinated beverage definitely keeps her going through her studies. However, her pet peeve is seeing people occupy the tables at Starbucks for long periods of time when she can’t find a seat.