The Problem with Plastic (and single use cups)

Part I: Our Plastic Reality

I am lucky enough to know some real, sweat-and-blood environmental activists, or environmental warriors. These are people who live zero-waste and plastic-free lifestyles, who organize beach clean-ups, protest for water rights, eat vegan and create turtle sanctuaries; people who work tirelessly to defend a planet that we as a species have done a pretty good job destroying over the last few centuries.

I can’t call myself an environmental activist: I care desperately about the planet, but at the moment I’m not giving my life to saving it. As I become more educated on the subject, I do what I can to limit my own footprint: I buy local produce from the farmers market or participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) by partnering with local farms. I buy sustainable meat when I eat it, and cook at home more than I eat out. I compost and recycle and try to limit what I’m sending to the landfill.

Despite these small steps, there’s something that fills up my trash and recycling bins: plastic. Take a moment, now, to survey your own surroundings. How many items in your immediate vicinity are made of plastic? How many will still be in use in 6 months? How many will end up in the landfill?

Plastic does not biodegrade, and many forms of it are not recyclable – even when they are, if they’ve been soiled by food products they cannot be recycled and will get diverted back to landfill. Many consumers may put things they hope are recyclable in the recycling bin, hoping that the waste management company can either process it or sort it out. This is called “wish-cycling” and it wastes money, resources, and makes it more difficult to process items that are actually recyclable. If you’re unsure, it’s likely that it goes in the landfill (here’s a handy reference for folks in California).

Once in the landfill, plastic will not biodegrade, or break down in any way, for many hundreds of years. The actual permanence of these products contrasts starkly with their implied disposability; we buy plastic toothbrushes precisely because we can discard them once they’re worn out. This means that in the course of our lifetime (depending on our personal grooming habits) we may add thousands of plastic toothbrushes to our local landfill; these will likely outlive us and our children by several hundred years.

There’s a one type of plastic that is particularly relevant to the coffee industry: the single-use plastic-lined hot cup. How did it become so pervasive? Why are most single-use hot cups not recyclable or compostable? How resource-intensive is the production, distribution, use, and waste processing for these cups?

To fully understand this phenomenon, I needed to know how it was that we came to rely so heavily on single-use products and what our alternatives are.

Part II: When Did Plastic Become so Pervasive?

Disposability is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so long ago products were meant to last for many, many uses. The whole concept of “disposable” didn’t exist in the same way it does now: people painstakingly separated bones from fat from meat, mended and reused every stitch of fabric they could, and passed them down to younger generations or lower classes would could repair or re purpose them. When things really and truly wore out there were designated places for them: the compost pile outside the house, or trash piles that might be burned in the yard.

It’s worth noting that none of this “waste” ever disappeared; the carefully segregated piles of things that were no longer useful stayed nearby, and it behooved homemakers to limit how much was added to the pile. Domesticated animals would happily eat food scraps, spare bits of equipment were sold or given away, and when when clothes and fabric had nothing more to give the rags could be sold to make “shoddy,” a cloth made in part from recycled fibers. Waste management was part of everyday life, and most things worked within a closed loop system, where one type of refuse might become someone else’s livelihood.  

This began to change at the turn of the twentieth century, both with the advent of industrialism and a new (and much needed) push for sanitary reforms. As Susan Strasser says in her fascinating book Waste and Want, “Mass production and mass distribution literally made more trash.” Containers branded with a company’s logo were no longer carefully saved or resold, prohibition put an end to the used bottle business, the meat industry took over the selling of bones and other animal offal for fertilizer and other products. This development of a linear economy based in take-make-dispose became more and more acute as the century wore on; people mended fewer things, took less care sorting their trash, and the idea that things were made to last flew out the window and into the landfill:

“Thus, the late-twentieth-century household procures goods from factories, mends little, bags the detritus in plastic, and places it at the curb to be conveyed to the transfer station of the incinerator. The late-twentieth century city takes in most of what is uses by truck and train and airplane, and flushes its waste into landfills, sewage treatment plants, and toxic dumps.” (Strasser, 15)

It was during this time that single-use cups came into existence. Before the twentieth century, it was common for wells and drinking fountains to have a dipper that everyone shared. Dr. Samuel Jay Crumbine, a pioneer in public health who waged war against common towels, spitting in public, encouraged people to swat flies to prevent disease (his famous slogan was “swat the fly”), and put an end to the public drinking cup at railroads and in public buildings. Thanks to his work, Kansas was the first state to abolish the common dipper and replace it with single use paper cups.

Paper cups are now a staple of North American life. In 2007, cafes, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants in the US gave away 52 billion paper cups. As nation, we now consume about 120 billion cups per year, or 53.7% of the world’s total consumption. One disposable hot cut per day will amount to 23 lbs of trash in one year.

On top of all this, in the U.S. our ability to process waste has decreased; this past January, China enacted an anti-pollution program that means they now reject all paper, metals, and plastic that are any less the 99.5% pure. Most recycling and waste plants in the US use single stream sorting, which at most can guarantee 97% purity, and this only with an exhaustive amount of sorting and human labor. This has caused a global market crash for recyclables, forcing counties to make difficult choices about how and whether to continue recycling, or whether to send these items directly to the landfill. Waste management companies used to turn a tidy profit selling recyclable goods: Sacramento County, which collects trash and recyclables from 151,000 homes, used to earn $1.2 million a year selling scrap. Now the county is looking at paying about $1 million a year to defray processor’s costs.

The findings from a report by the Alliance for Environmental Innovation in conjunction with Starbucks, though wildly out of date (having been published in 2000) are simply astounding: using reusable ceramic cups reduced energy by 98%. Using ceramic or glass instead of plastic reduced water pollution by 99%. Ceramic reusables reduced the amount of air particulates and greenhouse gases by 29%. It also reduced solid waste by 88%. Some are quick to point out that ceramic cups in particular require more energy to create, clean, and reuse; there’s an oft-cited 1994 study from Martin B. Hocking that claimed the break even point was around 1000 uses for a ceramic cup for one use for a disposable paper cup. However, this study does not take into account the impacts of deforestation, transportation, packaging, and disposal which go into making single-use cups “disposable”.

Part III: What Can Our Industry Do?

In a study executed in 2008, L. E. Fisher tackled this problem. Using a market based perspective, they identified poor pricing structure as a large part of the problem: consumers are not paying the true cost of using a disposable cup. Production, purchase, and disposal of single-use cups is costly, pollutive, and requires a lot of water an energy, yet these costs are paid either by the cafe, the local government, or by the environment. The study’s results showed that consumer-based pricing can significantly influence purchasing behavior, and although the study only ran for five weeks at a college cafe, it had only positive effects on both employees and customers. The cafe’s owner chose to keep the price change indefinitely as a result.

In fact, this study found a 133% increase in reusable cups; a concurrent study that offered a discount for mugs (as opposed to a Pigouvian tax on single-use cups) saw minimal difference in mug preference.

Something needs to change. At Royal coffee, we are committed to the fight to save our planet, and have taken a number of steps to reduce plastic from our business and move to a circular economy as much as possible. Here at our Emeryville office, a coworker takes home all our food scraps and coffee grounds as compost. When our Tasting Room opens, we’ll likely participate in a Ground to Ground project, donating our spent coffee grounds for use as compost. We’ve placed an office-wide ban on plastic pens, opting for wooden pencils instead. We’re actively looking for a solution for GrainPro and EcoTact bags, which offer some benefits to cup quality but which are, in the end, a single use plastic.

The Crown is moving to a rapidly changing area of Uptown Oakland; although we’ve been operating our in East Bay for 40 years and our staff is full of Bay Area natives and lifers, this is a new neighborhood and we are sensitive to the delicate housing and development situation. The last thing we want it to make folks feel unwelcome in our Tasting Room – something that as a third wave coffee shop, we’re already hyper-aware of and ready to mitigate with excellent, thoughtful customer service.

Single-use coffee cups are not the way of the future; but today, in Oakland, we want as many people to feel comfortable enough to drink and learn about coffee in our space as possible. For now, we’ll be offering to-go cups to our customers with an added twenty-five cent fee. All funds from these fees will be donated to environmental organizations, run by the warriors who are putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to defend our planet and its ecosystems. With this tactic, we can have important conversations with our customers and with our industry about the need to move towards reusables. The more people we get on this wagon, the better off we all are.  

In the meantime, I’ll be having my coffee for here, and taking whatever small actions I can take to move towards a zero-waste lifestyle