Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reusable Coffee Cups on Campus

Hi all! My name is Madeline, I’m a sophomore in the College (English major, Philosophy minor) and for my first post on the EcoAction blog, I thought I’d tackle an environmental issue that seems to be a huge issue here at Georgetown: the use of disposable coffee cups.

I often get coffee in the mornings at Uncommon Grounds in the Leavey Center, and almost every customer in line takes a disposable paper or plastic cup for their drink. Students, professors, staff, visitors—no one seems to carry a travel mug, a thermos, or even a ceramic mug with them for their drink. At the other Corp coffee shops, at Starbucks, and at Epicurean, it’s the same story.

We’ve all seen this across campus, and we’ve all been guilty of using a disposable paper cup at one time or another. I know I left my travel mug in my room all weekend even though I went out for coffee a number of times. It can be a burden to carry a mug around with you, especially if you’re also toting a reusable water bottle. Even if you do usually carry a mug, it’s easy to forget it from time to time; or you might find yourself with a serious caffeine craving when you don’t have it with you. These are all understandable situations.

But I think we can agree that even when wastefulness is due to normal human forgetfulness, it’s still a bad thing. Moreover, most of the wastefulness due to the use of paper cups is not the result of people forgetting their travel mugs at home; it’s due to complacency and, frankly, laziness at coffee shops throughout the country.

Consider a few statistics, taken from the website “Sustainability is Sexy,” which focuses specifically on this issue of coffee-cup waste. Americans will consume 23,000,000,000 paper coffee cups this year, which is up from about 16,000,000,000 in 2006. Starbucks customers alone used 2,300,000,000 cups that year. A horrifying table on their website estimates that a large university uses 5,000 cups per day. This waste—most of which is not from recycled paper, but instead is bleached paperboard coated with plastic resin—ends up in landfills, where it takes years to decompose and releases harmful methane gas.

Furthermore, it takes an unconscionable amount of water, trees, and energy to manufacture so many of these cups. These statistics are also available on the “Sustainability is Sexy” website. And then there’s the extra waste that comes from “nesting” coffee cups—one cup inside the other—and from disposable coffee sleeves and plastic lids. The “Sustainability is Sexy” website does not even take on the issue of plastic cups for iced coffee drinks, which is arguably even more environmentally harmful. In that case, the benefit from not using a disposable coffee sleeve is cancelled out by the use of plastic straws.

Some argue that the resources used to manufacture plastic or ceramic coffee mugs and travel mugs renders those reusable mugs even less eco-friendly than disposable coffee-cups. The science shows that these critics are right—in the short term. tackled this question a few years ago in this article. They note that with regard to energy use, air pollution, waste production, and water use, ceramic cups appear to do greater environmental damage. However, reusable mugs are meant to be, well, reused. When you take into account the number of times you will use your travel mug, the environmental benefits well outweigh the initial costs. The reusable mug epitomizes sustainability.

In addition, the simple principle of the reusable mug is, I think, worthy of consideration. It’s typical of our flippant, careless attitude toward the planet that we don’t give a second thought to throwing away a new paper coffee cup every day. It may be awkward to carry a mug to the coffee shop in the morning, but the benefit to the planet for such a small inconvenience will be huge. Most of us have gotten used to the inconvenience of carrying a reusable water bottle and reusable bags. There’s no reason why we can’t adjust to carrying a reusable mug with us too.

Moreover, we reap financial benefits from reusable mugs just as we do from reusable water bottles and bags. The Corp coffee shops and Starbucks both give discounts for bringing in your own mug. You won’t save as much money as you do by not buying plastic water bottles, and there’s no cost for using a disposable mug like there is in D.C. now for using a plastic bag, but with enough uses, that travel mug will pay for itself. Some Corp locations sell their own mugs, and you can buy Georgetown mugs at the bookstore, too.

As the cold weather comes and the work continues to pile up, I’m sure we’ll all be consuming our fair shares of coffee and tea. But let’s do it sustainably.

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