What’s the big deal? So what if millions of Americans each day consume the delicious, hot, caffeinated beverage we all know and love as coffee. Drinking coffee is a national pastime and more than 50% of Americans drink coffee everyday (Rome, N. 2002). It acts as our fuel source to kick off our day and serves as a pick me up for later. Clearly, we like the stuff. Whenever you could use a cup of Joe, just stop by your nearest restaurant, café, grocery store, office break room, or on the go coffee-cart and you have got a delicious cup of coffee made to order. So what is the big deal? Well, it’s true you can order up a coffee any way you like, but have you ever thought about rather than “holding the whip”, holding the cup instead? Each individual who purchases a coffee to-go every day will end up contributing to about 23 pounds of garbage a year to our nation’s landfills; (Dunn, N. 2008). Although throw away coffee to-go cups are convenient and widely used in offices as well as coffee stands, they in fact contribute to unnecessary waste and harm to our environment because many of the cups are not recyclable, extreme amounts of energy and resources are put in to manufacturing the cups, and once piled high in landfills the cups will contribute more to global warming by emitting methane gas all of which could be completely avoided if everyone was committed to using reusable coffee cups or travel mugs.
Thanks to caffeine, coffee is one of our most addicting drugs with about 50% of Americans drinking it daily; (Bangalore, S., Parkar, S., & Messerli, F. 2007). Out of the 100 billion cups of coffee that Americans consume each year, 14.4 billion are served in disposable cups. This is enough to stretch around the earth 55 times and weighs up to 900 million pounds; (Carbonrall.com. 2008) With that said, recycling has become extremely popular and very beneficial. Things like paper, plastic, and aluminum are being separated and recycled among businesses and homeowners. It seems simple enough; let us just throw the coffee to-go cups into the mix, right? Wrong. Aside from the fact that many people are not committed to recycling, the truth is most of the coffee to-go cups contain a plastic lining that basically waterproofs the inside of your cup to keep your beverage from leaking and your cup from crumbling. This plastic lining, otherwise known as polyethylene, keeps the cups from the hope of ever being recycled; (Betts 2008). While the plastic coating ruins the recycling process for coffee to-go cups, so does contamination of the cup that comes in contact with beverages which restrict its recyclability; (The Recycle Gal, 2010). It is important to mention that efforts to come up with a suitable recycling process for products containing polyethylene-type polymers are in the works, although polyethylene itself is still one tough cookie. Removing it from the product it’s attached to is extremely difficult; (Sovová, K., Ferus, M., Matulková, I., Španěl, P., Dryahina, K., Dvořák, O., et al. 2008). Those who are concerned and should be concerned about the environmental impact of disposable cups should worry less about how to recycle the disposable cups, and instead focus on using reusable cups or travel mugs. Why should one be up in arms about implementing a recycling process for something that could easily be replaced with a reusable product that could outlast the life of a cat? Cats have nine lives after all. The solution is to understand the difficulty in recycling the convenient to-go cups, and make a conscious effort to avoid the use of disposable cups. Reinforce the concept/practice by bringing into play a classy travel mug, that not only has a great purpose, but shows some of your own personality. More businesses should take it upon themselves to raise awareness and educate the public about the problems with recycling disposable cups. They could encourage others to do something about it specifically, by enforcing the use of a reusable cup. Chances are, most people are unaware of what their convenient caffeine addiction has been doing one disposable cup at a time. By raising awareness and educating the public about reducing our coffee cup waste, consumers are more likely to make a more environmentally friendly decision as this could extend to other aspects of their lives as well; (van Birgelen, M., Semeijn, J., & Keicher, M. 2009). Interesting enough, even though one can be informed as to why they should make a conscious effort to be more environmentally friendly, there are different norms to consider. What is the motivator behind making that decision? It might be either a personal or social norms. For example, a person might use a reusable coffee mug for personal satisfaction, to feel better about themselves or because they feel pressured from others and need to live up to the standards in today’s world; (Thøgersen, J. 2009). Either way, there is a need to largely increase reusable cup awareness in the coffee sector of our world.
If you have never thought about the environmental impact your throw away coffee cup has, then you probably also don’t realize the extreme amount of energy and resources that are used to manufacture the cups. It may help to understand the importance of ditching your to-go cup by becoming familiar with the manufacturing process of disposable cups. While you might agree that the cups are convenient, you may also agree that the reduction of almost 10 million trees a year to produce the discarded product may outweigh your convenience. A study shows that the estimated number of trees to be used for the manufacturing process of disposable cups will amount to 9.7 million in 2010; (Sustainability is Sexy, 2009). The stage of the life cycle of disposable cup starts with the wood growth and is followed by harvesting, but it does not stop there. Unfortunately, the process of producing the cups also includes the use of an extraordinary amount of water to clean the wood and also to create a pulp like stage. To give you an idea of the amount of water used to help in this process would be the equivalent of 8.5 thousand Olympic sized swimming pools, which equates to 5.7 billion gallons of water projected to be used in 2010; (Sustainability is Sexy, 2009). In an article that outlines the details of the manufacturing process, it includes vast amounts of transportation, the production of chemicals as well as coating materials, the coating process, the actual manufacturing of the cups followed by the production of packing materials to transport the cups; (Hakkinen, T., Vares, S. 2010). Granted, all reusable cups that are manufactured may go through an extreme process, using materials of which I am unsure of. A study found that a reusable cup need be only used a minimum of 10 times to make the environmental impact less than that of a single use cup; (Garrido, N., & Avarez Del Castilo, M. 2007). This demonstrates that it is more environmentally friendly to enforce the use of a reusable cup to eliminate the unnecessary harvesting of trees and consumption of water to manufacture disposable cups.
The coffee you were thinking about grabbing to-go today doesn’t sound so good anymore does it? Well, before you decide to ditch your to-go cup ritual, here’s one more fact that will definitely put the lid on it. Most disposable cups end up in a landfill since they cannot be recycled. Even though you might be through with your cup that once held your delicious white mocha, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily through with you. Your discarded cup will continue on by emitting methane gas into the atmosphere. Most methane is emitted from human related activities, landfills being the biggest; (Figueroa, V., Mackie, K., Guarriello, N., Cooper, D. 2009). Landfills are like giant trash cans, keeping our garbage that we can no longer store in our homes. In fact, so much of our trash winds up in landfills that they have become the second largest contributor to methane emissions both in the United States and worldwide; (De La Cruz, F., & Barlaz, M. 2010). The causes of methane emissions contribute to global warming, in which we may experience a change in the rainfall pattern, frequent hurricanes, and flooding. These factors can attribute to changes in agriculture, insect infestations, and a reduction in glacier mass; (Figueroa, V., Mackie, K., Guarriello, N., Cooper, D. 2009). Both methane gas and carbon dioxide flow from our landfills, although methane has roughly 21 times the effect of carbon dioxide over a hundred year period; (Garg, A., Achari, G., & Joshi, R. 2007). To give an example of how just one landfill, out of the 2300 landfills in the United States, can affect the environment, a 232 acre landfill in central Florida that currently uses 127 acres and serves over 300 residents in seven cities and receives 810 tons of waste per day emits 708 grams per second; (Figueroa, V., Mackie, K., Guarriello, N., Cooper, D. 2009). This case study goes to show that we are not only emitting awful toxins into our atmosphere, but we are also neglecting valuable space by doing so. Even though landfills contain items other than disposable cups, the cups do create a great amount of solid waste. A study found that the total amount of solid waste created by disposable cups would amount to 363 million pounds in 2010; (Sustainability is Sexy, 2009). That is 363 pounds of solid waste that could be kept from the landfills if reusable travel mugs were enforced more and people were made aware of the consequences of disposable cups.
The next time you travel to a coffee-cart, café, or any other business that sells coffee to-go, consider traveling with a reusable cup as well. Hopefully the above outlined downers of using a disposable cup will make you join the force against using single use cups. The efforts against using one time use cups needs to be enforced and made known to others to build awareness of the damages disposable cups can cause to the environment. This idea of building awareness needs to not only be spread by coffee consumers but by coffee distributors as well. People should encourage others around them to take advantage of the convenience of a reusable travel mug. Businesses too should enforce an environmentally friendly way of serving your highly desired coffee. On a side note, toss around the idea of purchasing a reusable travel mug that has some flair to show off your personality which will make you enjoy using it all the more. Travel mugs also make great gift ideas and while you are doing something nice for someone else, you are also doing something nice for the environment. A double bonus! Take what you have learned here and apply it to your everyday life. Keep the impact of using a single use cups at the top of your mind. Forget about recycling the coffee to-go cup you just used this morning, it will not work anyway. Let’s hold the cup instead of the whip and save the unnecessary energy used to manufacture the cups, keep them from taking up space in landfills, and contributing to global warming by emitting methane gas. It’s time for you to wake up and smell the coffee, without the to-go cup.
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DE LA CRUZ, F., & BARLAZ, M. (2010). Estimation of Waste Component-Specific Landfill Decay Rates Using Lahoratory-Scale Decomposition Data. Environmental Science & Technology, 44(12), 4722-4728. doi:10.1021/es100240r.
Dunn, N. Wisebread.com. (2008) The Coffee Cup Revolution: Let’s Take a Stand.
Retrieved from http://www.wisebread.com/the-coffee-cup-revolution-lets-take-a-stand
Figueroa, V., Mackie, K., Guarriello, N., Cooper, D. (2009) A Robust Method for Estimating Landfill Methane Emissions. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 59:925-935. DOI:10.3155/1047-32188.8.131.525
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Hakkinen, T., Vares, S. (2010) Environmental Impacts of Disposable Cups with Special Focus on the Effect of Material Choices and End of Life. Journal of Cleaner Production, 0959-6526. DOI:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.05.005
Rome, N. (2002). Caffeine Nation; Is Coffee Beneficial Or Bad For Americans? Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/11/14/sunday/main529388.shtml
Sovová, K., Ferus, M., Matulková, I., Španěl, P., Dryahina, K., Dvořák, O., et al. (2008). A study of thermal decomposition and combustion products of disposable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic using high resolution fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, selected ion flow tube mass spectrometry and gas chromatography mass.. Molecular Physics, 106(9/10), 1205-1214. doi:10.1080/00268970802077876.
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