Monday, August 5, 2013

The Cost of Disposable Coffee Cups

Coffee Cup Waste

(originally posted on on 02/27/13)

Saving the World One Cup at a Time...

"Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings" - Helen Keller

Though we may not want to admit it, we are all guilty of indifference at some point in our lives. To function successfully in today's society, it is necessary to shut out the madness from time to time. On the other hand, apathy and ignorance (the true sense of the word) are taking a heavy toll on ecosystems the world over. While there is nothing wrong with protecting ourselves from too much negativity, Earth, our home that we depend on for our survival, deserves our protection as well. At Wunder Budder, we are firm believers that, when considered collectively, small changes can make a big impact on the future of our planet. By curtailing our own wasteful habits today, we reduce the amount of trash piling up in landfills and create a better world now and for our future.

How Disposable Cups Impact the Environment:

Disposable cups for hot drinks are generally made out of either polystyrene or paper. Certain product characteristics make these containers difficult, or even impossible, to recycle. By now, most of us are aware that polystyrene cups are bad for the environment, but few people realize that disposable paper cups are just as problematic.

Disposable Polystyrene Cups

Commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam, disposable beverage cups made of this expanded polystyrene (EPS) are deeply despised by concerned environmentalists. While this notoriously carcinogenic petroleum-based substance is lighter than paper alternatives, the sheer volume of EPS contained in landfills is the real problem. It takes up a lot of space, and nearly incapable of biodegrading, EPS decomposition requires at least 500 years. You may have noticed that some polystyrene cups and containers sport a #6 recycling logo, yet many towns fail to include this in their curbside program. Though it is possible to make insulation, packing materials, and other foam items from recycled EPS, the current demand is still relatively low.

Disposable Paper Cups

Many people prefer disposable paper cups over polystyrene, believing them to be better for the environment. The truth is, they aren't much better at all; in fact, because they are lined with a synthetic waterproof polymer, paper beverage cups are neither biodegradable nor recyclable. An astonishing amount, over 40% by some accounts, of solid waste in American landfills is either paper or cardboard. Much of this waste can be attributed to disposable coffee cups. If you are currently throwing away just one cup per day, you are responsible for consuming nearly an entire tree's worth of paper per year. Next time you're in line at your local coffeeshop, imagine for a minute each person in line as a tree that was cut down. If we truly want to save the environment, our "out of sight, out of mind" mentality regarding trash just won't cut it anymore. Have you ever considered how much waste we contribute to landfills through disposable coffee cups?

Doing the Math: How Do Your Daily Habits Stack Up?

While some say ignorance is bliss, like Stephen Colbert, we think truthiness is better. To create the table below, we compared the weights of three standard disposable cup sizes: a small paper cup (12 oz), a medium paper cup (16 oz), and a large polystyrene cup (22 oz). We then figured out how much trash one person can accumulate from a one-cup-a-day coffee, tea, or hot chocolate habit. These numbers are likely to confirm what you probably already knew in your gut: humans make too much trash!

One Cup a Day Accumulates How Much Solid Waste?*

In a Day (1 Cup)In a Month (30 cups)In a Year (365 Cups)
Small0.375 oz / 10.63 g11.25 oz / 318.93 g8.6 lbs / 3.9 kg
Medium0.5 oz / 14.17 g15 oz / 425.24 g11.4 lbs / 5.2 kg
Large0.25 oz / 7.09 g7.5 oz / 212.62 g5.7 lbs / 2.6 kg
*actual cups from coffeeshops were weighed for this data. Numbers may fluctuate slightly for different brands of cups, but sizes are standard.

Using this table, you can easily estimate how much waste you contribute to landfills by throwing out disposable hot beverage cups. Keep in mind that these totals don’t even include the added weight or volume of plastic covers and cardboard sleeves, nor the impact of double-cupping for comfort. While this information might leave you feeling discouraged, think of it as a timely wake-up call.
By opening our eyes to the truth, we become motivated to make positive life changes!

How You Can Help Reduce Disposable Cup Waste

We’ll be the first to agree that old habits die hard, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible. By making small, incremental adjustments in our daily lives, eventually the momentum builds, inspiring us to make even more positive changes. One person can make a difference, and that person can be you! Before buying your next hot beverage of choice, consider these simple suggestions for saving the world one cup at a time:

  • Take a break! Rather than getting your favorite drink “to go,” stop and smell the roses for a few minutes. Don’t forget to let your barista know you’ll be sticking around, and that he or she can serve your beverage in a washable mug (if possible).
  • Rinse and repeat! There is no rule that says you can’t reuse a disposable cup a few times before throwing it out. If you’re the type of person who buys coffee more than once a day, bring your first cup back and put a few additional miles on it.
  • Buy a travel mug! Most coffee shops are happy to use a cup provided by you. Look for stainless steel or ceramic (skip the plastic - for the environment, your health, and taste) reusable travel mugs that are easy to wash and won’t spill too easily. The easier it is for you, the more you'll enjoy using it. You can even buy a glass Mason or Ball jar (the best choice for the environment) with handles.
  • Repurposing is rad! No need to shell out extra cash and use up resources. Reuse a 16oz glass peanut butter, coconut oil, or other wide mouth jar. You can even outfit your new favorite mug with a jar cozy for added comfort and cuteness!

Know that you, as one person, can make a difference. Want an easy way to visualize the change you can make? For each cup saved, think of it multiplied by 1,000.

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Anonymous said...

I'm having trouble believing that a large polystyrene cup weighs the least out of all three sizes. Am I missing something?

Wunder Budder said...

Polystyrene is very light, much lighter than compressed paper with a wax liner. If you're having trouble believing the numbers, just grab some cups for yourself and weigh them out. Thanks for commenting!