2.8
April 22, 2010

My great To-go Cup awakening.

From one-cup stand…to caring porcelain relationship.

One day we elephants were trudging through an afternoon meeting, a list of articles to post and new ideas for advertising to scheme and only one seemingly infinite hour down, three to go.

A little “pick-me-up” was in order, so a fellow intern and I stepped out to go across the street and grab coffee.  We chatted at the shop briefly, sugared our lattés and returned to the office.

We waltzed back in, refreshed and refueled just by the thought of the two black steaming shots awaiting us in our white paper to go cups. To Waylon’s evident dismay.

“You got bleached paper non-recyclable to go cups with plastic lids when there is a kitchen full of mugs right in this office?!,” he inquired in disbelief.  “Alright, you know what’s next: who wants to blog about this?”

Believe it or not, I was prepared for the assignment.  I’m no idiot—of course using a to-go cup is wasteful and lazy.  I didn’t think about the mugs in the kitchen, but I could have guessed if I thought about it for two seconds, that bringing coffee back to work in to-go mugs would piss Way off.

But it doesn’t really matter that what we did pissed Way off —perhaps we really should care about avoiding to go ware for bigger reasons, like our health, and the health of our environment!

People are more hip to the reasons we don’t like to go containers now than they were five years ago, but how often does that awareness fall by the wayside in favor of convenience?  That’s the thought process, or lack thereof, that I entertained in “grabbing coffee” in its convenient white paper cup with tight-fitting, spill-proof lid.  Like I said, if I had thought about it for 2 seconds, if everyone just thinks about it for two seconds, they do know the right answer is skipping the paper container altogether.

To-go cup investigation led me to find another reason to skip the single-use containers than filling already overflowing landfills: there is actually a plastic lining, that’s right—PLASTIC—inside of these innocent-looking white paper cups. Not only does said polyethylene lining keep the cup from being recyclable in the majority of cities, but it’s also potentially hazardous to our health.

Pop quiz:

Q: What happens when you heat plastics?

A: They leach out into whatever they contain. (Leach—to me, the word says it all.)

Q: Is ingesting plastic okay? I mean, c’mon, we must be built to withstand these kinds of daily physical challenges! Kidneys…a little help?

A: Ingesting plastic is okay if you are okay with cancers, birth defects and scary hormonal issues.

Now, for the carbon footprint of each little white throw-away compared to its reusable cousin:

In the spirit of the New York Times’ article on the green-ness of the iPad, here’s a breakdown of the size of your to-go cup’s footprint. This includes the disposable sleeve that keeps your hand cool and the disposable polystyrene lid.

The water waste:

According to this video funded by the World Wildlife Foundation, the equivalent of 200 liters of water go into each morning latte, once you factor in the cup, sleeve and lid, along with the coffee, cow’s milk and sugar.

Now the Environmental Effects of Production From Wikipedia:

A study of one paper coffee cup with sleeve (16 ounce) shows that the CO2 emissions is about .11 kilograms (.25 pounds) per cup with sleeve – including paper from trees, materials, production and shipping.[10] The loss of natural habitat potential from the paper coffee cup (16 ounce) with a sleeve is estimated to be .09 square meters (.93 square feet).[11]

Over 6.5 million trees were cut down to make 16 billion paper cups used by US consumers in 2006, using 4 billion gallons of water and resulting in 253 million pounds of waste.[8]

Very little recycled paper is used to make paper cups because of contamination concerns and regulations. Because most paper cups are coated with plastic, both composting and recycling of paper cups is uncommon.

Although paper cups are made from renewable resources (wood chips 95% by weight), paper products in a landfill may not decompose, or may release methane if decomposed anaerobically. The manufacture of paper usually requires inorganic chemicals and creates water effluents.

Paper cups may consume more non-renewable resources than cups made of polystyrene foam (whose only significant effluent is pentane). A number of cities—including Portland, Oregon — have banned XPS foam cups in take-out and fast food restaurants.

PE is a petroleum based coating on paper cups that can slow down the process of biodegrading. PLA is a biodegradable bio-plastic coating used on some paper cups. PLA is a renewable resource and makes paper cups more compostable, whereas PE is not renewable and is not compostable.

In the comments posted on one coffee cup site, a woman reported trying to compost a paper coffee cup. She checked on it a couple of weeks later only to find that the earthworms ate the paper, leaving the plastic inner shell behind—ew!

It appears that in 2010 Americans will use 23 billion coffee cups. If each cup’s total water usage comes to 200 liters, that’s 4.6 trillion liters of water wasted, or however you say: 4600000000000000!

While manufacturing materials such as stainless steel and porcelain for reusable cups also impacts the environment, and factoring in the water used for hand washing throws things off a little, the total benefit once the reusable cup has actually been REUSED for a year negates the carbon footprint from its production. Single-use containers, however, are never used enough times to do this.

Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption

Photographic art by Chris Jordan depicts American consumerism in ways intended to open the eyes of viewers to the scale of waste we unwittingly create.  This particular piece depicts 410,000 single-use paper cups stacked together, which is the number of disposable hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes. The people at bottom left are there to show the scale of this many cups.

This is Jordan’s depiction of a single day’s worth of paper cups (40 million), with the Statue of Liberty added in for scale.

New fun alternatives:


Lately I use this ceramic to-go look-alike with silicone lid. It felt kinda weird at first to sip through silicone (you’re telling me this is safe?) but I looked into it and apparently it’s about the safest material around to heat and use for food storage—much better than teflon nonstick surfaces and most of the other materials we heat to dangerous temps. I got mine at a Walgreens drugstore, of all places, for $6. My only complaint is getting splashed when I ride with it in my bike drink holder, but I just rubberband wax paper over the top for the ride, and keep the band around it so it doesn’t get lost.

Also for sale on Etsy and in Atlas Purveyors in Boulder are “coffee cuffs,” adorable handmade cylindrical fabric cuffs sewn to fit 12 and 16 ounce to go cups or pint glasses. Super easy to stash in your purse or backpack, they take up hardly any room at all. They run at about $5 a pop.

The main message is that there is something very simple we can do about the paper cup waste problem. Whether you are mistrustful of toxins or care more for the environment, including the birds that may one day swallow your cup lining to the virgin forests lopped down to create virgin white paper pulp, hopefully a piece of information here struck a cord. I actually haven’t used a to go cup since I skipped in to work with the one that started this whole story, and it really hasn’t been “inconvenient” or a “a big deal” at all. If you’re willing to try ridding your life of one more bit of littering clutter, or already have, leave your name in the comments below and let us know how long you can go without using a single single-user. It’s like a one-night stand: easy and fun for about an hour, until you throw it away without a care. We all know the long-term relationship is so much more fulfilling!

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YGB Apr 23, 2013 6:10am

I moved from Boulder to Amsterdam a year ago, and there's a lot of coffee flowing in Amsterdam thanks in part to a plenitude of cold, gray days. No paper coffee cups walking the streets though. Even Starbucks here still serves in ceramic mugs so sit down, slow down, and take a few minutes to fully enjoy that hot goodness out of a proper, non-paper cup.

Clarine Petrin Apr 6, 2012 1:57pm

I need to give thanks for this informative read, I in fact admire sharing this type of effective content.

Suzanne Apr 29, 2010 2:23pm

Claire, I like the "sit your ass down and enjoy it" philosophy touted by PGL! And I also DO NOT use single use cups. It is like grocery bags; at first I would keep them in my car and forget to take them with me into the shop, but after a little practice my mind now tells me that I am missing something if I try to go into a shop without my carrier bags (and I keep a stuff sack in my handbag just in case my mind isn't working!) Great write up Claire. Keep going and you WILL change our bad habits! LOL, Suzanne

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Claire Lochridge