First plastic bags, then it was straws, now coffee cups

Coffee cups have become environmental enemy number one; industry has been working on a more environmentally friendly alternative to disposable cups for well over more than a decade, but finding an alternative has not gone well.

Berkeley, California, is a city in Northern California on the east side of San Francisco Bay and home to the University of California.  It is also known for its leadership on all things civic and environmental.  It is the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, and it was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt curbside recycling. It banned styrofoam and was early to take on plastic shopping bags.

Now they have a new mission and earlier this year, the Berkeley City Council industry noticed that they are on a new environmental mission to change the use of the “to-go” coffee cup.

Some 40 million disposable cups get tossed in the city each year, according to the City Council, almost one per resident per day. So, in January, the city said it will require coffee shops to charge an extra 25 cents for customers who use a take-away cup. “Waiting is no longer an option,” Sophie Hahn, the Berkeley City Council member who wrote the legislation, said at the time.

Being overwhelmed by trash, local, regional and national governments around the world are banning single-use plastic takeaway containers and cups.  

The Canadian government has released numbers that Less than 10 percent of plastic used in Canada gets recycled and that without a change in course, that Canadians will throw away an estimated $11 billion worth of plastic materials each year by 2030.  Taking action they announced that the Government of Canada would take steps to reduce Canada’s plastic waste, support innovation, and promote the use of affordable and safe alternatives with the plan to ban all harmful single-use plastics (such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks) where supported by scientific evidence and warranted, and take other steps to reduce pollution from plastic products and packaging by early as 2021.  European governments have a similar goal to ban by 2021, with India following them with a ban by 2022 and Taiwan by 2030.  However, the United States has not followed suit and they along with Japan are two nations that did not sign the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter, which has the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union (EU) have all agreed to increase plastic recycling by 50 percent, while also working towards 100 percent reusable, recyclable or recoverable plastics by 2030. 

For chains like Starbucks, which goes through about 6 billion cups a year, and brands like Tim Horton and Dunkin that generate close to 60 to 70 percent of their revenue from coffee or hot beverage drinks, this is a huge dilemma.  But it is not just limited to those in the coffee business, it is a pressing problem for the fast-food industry as a whole.

Executives have long suspected this day would come. Separately and together, they’ve been working on a more environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic-lined, double-walled, plastic-lidded paper cup for more than a decade.  But unfortunately, the search for an alternative has not gone that well.

Disposable cups are a relatively modern invention. About 100 years ago, public health advocates were eager to ban a different kind of cup — the public drinking vessel, a shared tin or glass cup left near drinking fountains. When Lawrence Luellen patented a wax-lined throwaway cup, he billed it as an innovation in hygiene, a prophylactic measure to counter diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Now the cups themselves are the issue. In just the U.S. alone, of the  120 billion paper, plastic and foam coffee cups, or about one-fifth of global total, used each year, almost all of them, 99.75 percent, end up as trash, where even paper cups can take more than 20 years to decompose.

A wave of plastic bag bans has inspired the new efforts to curb cup trash. Food and beverage containers are a much bigger problem, sometimes generating 20 times the garbage that plastic bags do in any one locale. But reverting to reusable cloth bags is relatively easy. With to-go coffee cups, there’s no simple alternative. Berkeley is encouraging residents to bring a travel mug, and both Starbucks and Dunkin give discounts to those who do, but this not enough and reusable have their own issues both health and operational.  With reusable cups servers never know whether a cup is dirty or if they should wash it, and it’s hard to know how much to fill a small or medium coffee in a large mug.

With municipal governments like Berkeley not waiting for answers and looming global bans just around the corner industry’s will have to continue to work on making a better cup for their customer to enjoy their favorite cup of joe.

by Calli Gregg