Coffee Cups and Trash

makes you want to drink up!

photo from bmitchellw / flickr

After college, my first “look Mom, I have a job” job was as a barista in a coffeeshop. As the new guy, my main responsibilities were mopping, dishes, and taking out the trash. Several times a day, I’d empty vast garbage cans full of insulated paper cups. And I got fed up.

I don’t know what to call that feeling — maybe green angst — but every time I took out the trash, I was just plain frustrated. Even though we had ceramic mugs, people didn’t think twice about using a new paper cup every day, and then tossing it out.

The job didn’t last too long, but I never did resolve that green angst.

I decided to dig a little deeper.  How wasteful are these things, anyway?

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, with over a billion cups consumed every day.  As the world population grows, and coffee shops spread, it’s clear that this is a problem worth solving.

The alternatives are fairly common-sense: bring your own mug, if you’re in a rush. Or order it in a ceramic mug and enjoy it in the shop. Whenever I can, I get my coffee “for here” and enjoy a five-minute break from my day as I drink it. I think coffee tastes better out of a real mug! Oh, and it reduces waste and makes my day a little more sane. This ain’t rocket science.

A study commissioned by Environmental Defense and Starbucks [pdf] looked at the details. Using glass or ceramic mugs instead of throwaway cups produces “tremendous” environmental benefit: drastically less energy used, less water use and pollution, and reduced garbage.  (I could’ve told them that last point!)

So, what should we do? As a consumer, try to bring your own mug. It feels good, tastes great, saves money, won’t spill, and makes a difference. Spread the word – double your impact by getting one friend on board!

Beyond that, don’t be afraid to talk to your local coffeeshop. Chances are, they want to do more to prevent waste, but aren’t sure how their customers feel.

What’s your trick to bringing your own cup? (Or are you not a coffee drinker?) Let us know in the comments below:

Tagged on: , ,

12 thoughts on “Coffee Cups and Trash

  1. BrazenSophistication

    You’re so right, there are so many little things we can do in a day to be eco-friendly. I don’t drink coffee, but I will take this into consideration when I go get my tea.

  2. gregpeterson1

    I’m headed to my local Goodwill to buy coffee mugs for everyone in my office to put their names on and use.
    I will keep an extra travel mug in my car. It isn’t easy to remember, but I do know it’s a terrible feeling to throw out paper cups (and the lid and the “jacket”). What a waste. I also think Starbucks can afford to offer a larger financial incentive for bringing your own cup, especially a Starbucks cup. At least they could recycle.

  3. Chrissy Sepulveda

    We make our organic, fair trade coffee at home, with organic half and half from a humane, socially responsible small dairy farm. On the rare occasion that we are on a road trip and might get some java along the road, we already have our coffee thermoses with us when we hit the road. We finish up the coffee we made at home, and then rinse out and refill if necessary. We also take our own coffee from home with us to work.

  4. Amanda

    Last year it was my New Year’s Resolution to use no paper cups. I didn’t allow myself to buy a coffee if I didn’t bring my reusable mug. No cup – no coffee helped me smarten up quickly! I also kept a tally of paper cups used – my total for 2012 was 11 paper cups!!

  5. Diane G

    Ask Nike to make coffee cups with the swish in green.
    and it could say: go green. just do it.

    If I find myself in the faculty lounge and there are paper cups, I just say NO and wait until I go up to my desk and get the mug. the extra flights of stairs are good for me too.

  6. Loretta Lee

    These are all great ideas, but it seems like just preaching to the choir–these are people who are already at least somewhat eco-conscious. What to do about the other ones, who either don’t know or care that this is a BIG problem? Usually money talks: get coffee shops to charge a significant-enough fee for paper cups that everyone would be encouraged to bring their own. It seems to be working with regard to bags at the grocery store. My city now charges for a new bag, and mostly everyone has started bringing their own.

    1. Jeff Gang

      Loretta – you are TOTALLY right. The big way we can make change is to get coffee shops on board. Or even better, city and state governments, as in Seattle, where they’ve mandated compost and recycling. Stay tuned – we’re launching a campaign on this soon! Or contact me at

Leave a Reply