While driving around the country on a mega-road trip last year, I relied on a lot of things to keep me going: gas, protein bars, peanut butter pretzels, water, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. I was on the road for four months drinking two cups of coffee per day, running through disposable cups from the of whatever Holiday Inn I stayed at the night before, from places like McDonalds, Circle K, Love’s, Pilot Flying J, Panera, Starbucks, and Dunkin (née Donuts), and from gas stations where both the coffee and the cups had been sitting on the counter for an indeterminate amount of time.
Two cups a day for four months equals 240 cups of coffee consumed, as well as 240 coffee cups — not to mention lids and cardboard sleeves — tossed in trash cans at gas stations from New Jersey to New Mexico to Montana and back again.
What a waste.
This year, I made a pledge to only get a cup of coffee when I’m out if I bring my own travel mug. I think this is a good thing – it saves me money because most places offer a discount if you bring your own mug, and it keeps trash out of a landfill. But not everyone is as jazzed as I am about reusable mugs — in October, Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), demanded to know why the 60th Ariel Port Squadron spent nearly $56,000 on metal coffee cups in the last three years.
That’s a lot of money, but to be fair, though those cups are used to reheat beverages while refueling air tankers in flight. Grassley urged the Air Force to consider cheaper options — a stance that’s not so far from our society’s general consensus that cheaper is better, even if it means more waste (relatedly, the Air Force dumped the cups after Grassley made his big stink). We keep throwing coffee cups away with abandon to the point that, in 2016, 250 billion paper cups were made globally, according to a report from the market research firm IMARC Group (though these numbers also include paper cups for cold beverages). They expect that number to hit 266 billion by 2022, mostly because of sanitation and hygiene concerns — after all, you can’t improperly sterilize a cup if you just throw it out. If we can freak out en masse about the environmental damage done by plastic straws, then why do throwaway coffee cups get a pass?
Part of that is habit: we’ve been taking coffee in to-go cups for a long time. The now iconic blue-and-white New York City Anthora to-go coffee cup was designed in 1963. The Kander & Ebb musical 70, Girls, 70 debuted on Broadway in 1971 and contains the song “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” bemoaning them as a sign we’re too much in a rush (“The trouble with the world today / it seems to me / is coffee in a cardboard cup”). As our coffee consumption has gone up, so has the number of cups we carry and toss.
“A cup becomes a walking billboard,” said John Moore, a marketing strategist who previously worked at both Starbucks and Whole Foods. “A cup having your logo on an office desk can spark a conversation. It could be a very strong marketing message.”
It becomes an identity marker for the coffee drinker, too. Moore likens the effect to wearing a concert t-shirt to show you’re the kind of person who likes that band. Someone carrying a Dunkin cup is saying the same things about themself as someone toting a cup with the stamp of a local artisanal roaster on its cardboard sleeve. And while me carrying around coffee in my New York City Marathon travel mug says I’m a runner, it doesn’t also advertise the place that sold me the coffee at the same time, which is why some retailers may not be that interested in getting customers to bring in refillable mugs.
A lot of focus has been put on not getting rid of disposable cups altogether, but making them more recyclable. While paper cups are made of, well, paper, most are also coated with a plastic resin called polyethylene, which helps make them liquid-resistant and durable — as well as impossible to recycle. Biodegradable cups made of corn plastic are making inroads in the industry, however. In October of this year, Starbucks and McDonalds launched the NexGen Cup Challenge, a global consortium with a goal of developing and fully compostable and recyclable paper cup. It could also be a way of addressing the fact that often, our recycling infrastructure prevents recyclables from actually being recycled.
Tyson Miller, forest program director of Stand.earth, said that the NextGen Cup Challenge an important investment, but that a push towards using re-fillable cups makes creating a recyclable cup “a non-issue. That’s the ideal,” he said. “It’s such a waste. We live in a throwaway society and we’ve gotten accustomed to that without really thinking about those impacts. It’s a mind shift.” (Starbucks declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent me a statement describing the program a “moon shot for sustainability.”)
It’s really not that hard. We all cut back on plastic straws even though there isn’t a great alternative, and who doesn’t have a reusable travel mug we picked up from a conference somewhere or bought at a thrift store?
Retailers can incentivize that shift by offering coffee drinkers a discount for bringing their own cups. Starbucks offers a $.10 discount for bringing their own cup (though that discount hasn’t risen in a way that corresponds to the rise of their coffee’s prices, according to Moore). I’ve gotten discounts ranging from only paying the refill rate at Wawa, an east coast gas convenience store chain, to 10% off from Burlap and Bean in Newton Square, Pa.
For nearly four years, Revolution Coffee Roasters in Collingswood, N.J. has offered discounts to customers who buy and bring in a 16 oz. Revolution Coffee Roaster-branded travel mug: $1 for refills on hot coffee and $2 on ice coffee (and they’ll give discounts to people who bring in any refillable mug, depending on how big it is).
“From a truly selfish standpoint, there’s a cost savings to us by not having to pay for disposable cups, but my first motivation is definitely the environmental perspective,” said Stephen McFadden, one of the owners of Revolution Coffee Roasters.
For those who want to take out a cup, they use recyclable cups, lids and sleeves, though McFadden said they purposefully don’t put their logo on them. “You can’t guarantee anybody’s behavior once they walk out of the door,” he said.