In this series I am trying to highlight changes or swaps you can make in your day to day living to decrease your waste production and/or use of plastics. These things are not difficult, nor time consuming, nor expensive (nay in most cases they will save you money).
Just try One Small Thing at a time and see if it works for you.
And then try something else. And something else, and it becomes your new normal. And before you know it you can live low waste, stop contributing to landfills and polluting the ocean, and save oodles of cash year after year.
Today we will talk about an easy one: Travel Mugs.
In today’s consumerist go-go-go culture, it seems our collective lifeblood is at least 90% caffeine.
The average U.S. coffee drinker consumes 2.7 cups of coffee per day, with the average size of a coffee cup measuring 9 ounces.
In total, approximately 150 million Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee per day — or more than 140 billion cups per year — making the United States the leading consumer of coffee in the world.
That’s a lotta joe!
And there is growing demand in developing nations as well, as China, India, and more attempt to lead increasingly Westernized lifestyles.
The biggest suppliers are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia (source 4). I know at least a few of those surprised me. Worldwide, we devour more than 121.5 million bags (60kg each, that 7.2 billion kg!) of coffee (source 5) and about 3 million tons of tea every year (source 6), with consumption of both rising.
This is in no way saying we should drink less caffeine!
I’m as addicted as anyone else, nearly nonfunctional without at least one cup of coffee by 10 am. I’ve even gotten to the point where I drink it black.
I’m so metal.
Just kidding, I avoid cream and also I’m
cheap frugal. 🙂
The problem is not the coffee.
The problem is not the tea.
The problem is the plastic-lined paper cups.
Literal mountains of them.
We throw away literally Billions of paper cups per year. Yes, most are made from recycled paper, which is great, and many companies even use that in their marketing.
But what they neglect to shout about is the fact that those recycled paper cups would totally leak burning hot liquid onto customers, without the dirty little secret inside.
“Though they are made largely of paper, disposable coffee cups are lined with plastic polyethylene, which is tightly bonded to the paper making the cups waterproof and therefore able to contain liquid.
In addition, the difficulty of recycling coffee cups is increased by the fact they are contaminated with drink. This means cups cannot be recycled at standard recycling plants, and must instead be taken to special facilities” (source 7).
In fact, less than 1% of all paper drink cups actually end up recycled.
Why is it so hard to give up this white cylinder of java?
To summarize the above article:
- Convenience – no one wants to have to remember a mug and carry it around all day
- Social status – carrying that white cup tells the world “I’m important and busy so I need coffee, and only the best and only the most convenient will do”
- 10 cents back for bringing your own doesn’t work – “Consumers are much more motivated to avoid a fine than to take advantage of a reimbursement, according to numerous behavioral economics studies (like this one). ” (source 8)
Walking around with a white mug can be just a simple way to get your java fix on the go, but it also has become a big part of our culture. The local coffee shop is a place to meet with friends, to catch up, for business meetings, or for focusing & working remotely.
The to-go mug signals that you are a part of the “busy professional” part of society. Even if you think that social cues don’t affect you, trust me, they do.
So what’s a conscious consumer to do?
I’m definitely on board with bringing your own, obviously. That goes for water bottles and napkins and utensils too. Preparation is step one to success.
Just find yourself a mug, preferably insulated, that has a lid. Toss that into your purse, car, or gym bag. And then when you need some hot tea or coffee, you’re all set!
They are re-usable over and over and over, and usually just require a quick rinse between uses. Run them through a dishwasher every now and then too.
Mugs / tumblers come in tons of cute colors, patterns, materials, with reusable straws, and in different sizes to suit any need.
You can even use a mason jar! No kidding. Maybe get iced coffee though, since heat will transfer through the glass.
Oh, and you’ll probably also get a small discount!
But, I’m definitely guilty of forgetting things.
So another idea that has been proposed, and I think is a fantastic one, is a well-established mug exchange program, with branded, eye-catching tumblers.
This could be just among one chain, a local joint, or many coffee shops all throughout a campus or a city.
It would require a small ‘membership fee’ to get the first mug. Then you can drink it there, or take it to go. There would have to be a simple way to maintain membership status signaling, perhaps through a reusable lid you keep between cups.
Then the mugs can be returned to be washed at any other participating location.
Imagine how many paper cups could be saved!
This would also solve the problem of inconsistent mug sizes. If the menu only has prices for 10, 12, or 16 ounces but your mug is 9 or 24 ounces, how is the barista to ring you up? If the mugs were standard, that is no longer a problem.
You still get the convenience of having it to-go, if it is the tall, insulated ceramic type of mug.
And you still have the convenience of multiple locations.
Over time, as this became more accepted and became the social norm, this concept of reusable mugs would become the top social class, and reuse would be something to be proud of, to get all your friends on board with, and to brag about.