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'Greening' the Disposable Coffee Cup: The Value of Simple Fixes

No matter how sustainable options are out there, there’s little chance the number of disposable cups sold will dwindle to zero.


If you’re in the market for a reusable coffee mug, the MoMA Store has a couple of clever options. There’s the New York Coffee Cup, a ceramic version of the classic Grecian-lettered “We Are Happy to Serve You” paper cup. There’s the I Am Not a Paper Cup, which looks just like the tall, generic one available everywhere, but made of double-walled porcelain.

It’s not necessary to own a reusable mug that pokes fun at its paper rivals: Touting around any reusable mug is a responsible, sustainable choice. But the majority of people don't do it, and many never will. And even the most environmentally minded people sometimes leave their reusable cups at home and still want to buy a cup of coffee. In other words, there’s a limit to the impact personal choices can have. No matter how sustainable options are out there, there’s little chance the number of disposable cups sold will dwindle to zero.


That’s where innovation can come in: Good design can minimize the impact of even the most irresponsible individual actors, the people who will never carry around reusable coffee mugs. In that vein, The Boston Globe reports that an architect named Peter Herman has figured out how to rid coffee cups of their plastic lids. Herman's Compleat cup has a lid built in—two paper flaps that fold over the cup’s open mouth. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but a tweak to a technology that’s been around forever. Nor is it an environmental transformation; the flaps will use paper resources. But these cups would be greener than the ones available now, and individual consumers wouldn't have to actively choose to use them. If a business like Starbucks adopted this technology, every one of its customers would start living a slightly greener lifestyle.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the lid doesn’t make paper cups uber-sustainable. Compleat cups are still coated with polyethelene, according to the Globe, a coating that prevents the cup from turning into a mushy mess, but also prevents it from being recycled. The coating also releases methane, a greenhouse gas, as it decomposes in landfills.

But some of the biggest beverage companies in the world are working on solving those problems. Compostable cups sealed with a corn-based coating already exist. Starbucks has organized a series of “cup summits” that bring fast-food behemoths, paper producers and waste processors together to brainstorm better cup technologies. Mindy Lubber, president of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres, reported from the most recent summit that the technology to recycle coated cups exists already. She also discovered that if Starbucks recycled all 4 billion of the paper cups it uses each year into napkins, it would add less than four days worth of production at the company’s napkin factory.

Everyone knows its environmentally friendly to carry a reusable coffee cup, but it’s less common to hear how we should be carrying around cloth napkins too. Making a real difference in how much waste is produced requires not just green guilt trips, but innovative tweaks to products—like coffee lids, paper napkins, and coffee cups' coating—that most people just don’t think about. Sometimes the simple fixes have the greatest value.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ethanhickerson

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