Many Canadians – along with millions of counterparts in other countries – enjoy the simple pleasure of getting a coffee. Maybe a latte, cappuccino, or tea is more to your taste. Whether it’s an occasional treat or multiple times a day, visiting a local cafe or Starbucks, we beat a path to grab some quick and tasty caffeine.
But stop. Before you roll up that rim to win, you need to stop and think. Because our love affair with coffee on the go has a dark side. Every time your hot beverage comes in a disposable cup – usually with a lid – you become part of the problem.
Let’s start with the most obvious fact. Coffee cups are made of paper. A century ago when they were invented, paper cups were a simple cost-effective innovation that reduced disease transmission. But their popularity has grown and, in the US, 16 billion cups are used for coffee each year. This equals about 6.5 million trees. Overall, North Americans use 58% of all paper cups, amounting to a staggering 130 billion cups – including hot and cold beverages. But other countries, particularly China, are starting to catch up.
Most cups use high-quality bleached virgin paperboard. Recently, some coffee shops have demanded cups with recycled content. While these do reduce new wood consumption, they may assuage consumer guilt more than merited. Additionally in the US, the Food and Drug Administration regulates recycled content to ensure cup safety – 10% recycled content and 90% new paper is the maximum allowed.
Paper cups are coated with polyethylene for insulation and durability. This plastic resin prevents recycling of cups. In addition, it is a suspected carcinogen. Coffee lids are made of plastic too. The overall effect, while arguably preventing hot drinks from spilling, is to reduce the aromatic smell of the beverage. At the same time, it offers the perfect environment for chemical leaching by combining hot acidic fluid with plastic.
If we are talking about resource use, manufacturing paper cups requires many trees while processing consumes energy, water, and chemicals. Add in the plastics. Then consider the solid waste that results moments after you take the last swig and toss the cup. The real cost of 16 billion paper cups is nearly one million tons of wood, 4 billion gallons of water, and 253 million pounds of waste. Every tree used for paper cups is also removed from the ecosystem and can no longer absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, or filter groundwater.
So, don’t hesitate to be part of the solution. Bring a mug. Some coffee shops may even offer a financial incentive if you fill your own cup. Customers and businesses should take responsibility for shifting such unnecessary waste.
Unfortunately, not all options are created equal. For instance, many appealling and handy reusable coffee cups are made of durable plastic. That means that Bisphenol-A might be part of the chemical processing – one factor to consider, especially with hot beverages.
Maybe a stainless steel or ceramic mug is the best bet. If you are concerned that the total impact of manufacturing might be less sustainable, consider that one study showed stainless steel cups become more environmentally friendly options once they have been used 25 times. This comparison looked at the energy, water, and other resources required in production – as opposed to paper cups.
Inconvenient? Maybe to start with. But you will sleep better at night, and your grandkids may be able to wander shaded forest trails.