Disposable cups: How are they still a thing?

If you’ve ever waged a one-person war on disposable cups, you know how frustrating and lonely it can be.

Around twenty years ago, when I was trying for zero waste, I bought a rather expensive metal mug at Krispy Kreme Donuts because I was getting my daily morning coffee from that chain.

The next day, when I presented the mug and asked the server to put my coffee in there, she refused, saying that all Krispy Kreme coffee had to be served in paper cups. I pointed out that it was a Krispy Kreme mug that I had bought at that location.

She knew. It just didn’t bother her.

Only partially daunted, I made several more attempts to get my coffee put into the metal mug. One server first poured it into a cup and then decanted it in the mug.

Even at that time, Dunkin’ Donuts probably had some corporate policy about letting people use real mugs and eschew the paper ones, but these policies often don’t make it down to the store level.

On numerous other occasions, I have made store clerks and cashiers angry by refusing bags or insisting on putting items in my back pack.

The words, “No bag!” and “I don’t need a bag” hollered directly at someone picking up my items for purchase often falls on deaf ears. Or it has to be repeated–which amazes me.

Am I really the first person at Walgreens ever to refuse a bag for one item?

Considering the on-the-ground resistance to reducing pointless, conspicuously immoral waste products, I decided to do some new research. Maybe disposable cups aren’t really the ecological disaster that I think they are.

Sadly, that’s not true. According to the Huffpost, Starbucks alone is destroying forests at the rate of 8000 paper cups a minute. And, if you’re thinking that paper cups could be recycled into other paper products, guess again. Many such cups are coated with polyethylene, a chemical that makes recycling difficult, if not impossible in most places.

Paper cups were supposed to be an improvement on styrene foam (colloquially known as styrofoam) which has been proven to kill marine animals and is suspected of contributing to cancer in humans.

A writer at the Boston Globe notes that neither cup is really recyclable.

Right about now, you might be asking how this is an animal rights issue. In the case of styrene foam, it’s more obvious. Surely, you’ve heard that turtles and diving birds ingest small amounts of this trash and it poisons them.

But let’s circle back to the thousands of trees that are destroyed to make paper cups. That’s a huge loss of trees. And mature trees are almost never alone. They are homes to animals. Most birds need trees to nest in. The destruction of one tree at mating season can destroy dozens of baby birds and bird eggs.

So, what is the solution?

The most obvious thing to do is make and drink your own coffee at home–without using a K-cup because K-cups are landfill mongers–and compost the filter.

But going out for coffee is an emotional or social ritual for millions of people. Are they doomed to participate in deforestation every day?

Not where coffee chains have voluntarily figured out ways to reduce waste. Europe, New Zealand, and Canada are getting way ahead of the United States on this initiative.

What you can do

All is not lost, even in the U.S. Starbucks lets customers buy $2 reusable cups. Then customers receive a small discount when they use them. The company does this in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

So, if you’re a Starbucks addict, this is the obvious thing to do. If you’ve been getting coffee in paper cups from another chain, switch to Starbucks and use their reusable mugs and get the discount.

If you’re not addicted to chain coffee, patronizing a local coffee shop may allow you the luxury of sitting down with a ceramic mug of coffee. Imagine that!

Or you can start a local initiative to ban paper cups in your town. Start out at city hall.

Last, but not least, you could buy an espresso maker at your local Goodwill or Habitat Restore and learn to make really delicious coffee at home.