The Hidden Life of Disposable Cups

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Photo credit: Jonathan Rausseo

About 3 years ago the Brige (our waste diversion coordinator) found out that we use about 6,500 disposable coffee mugs on campus every day. If we stacked those mugs end to end, those mugs would be 7 times higher than the Peace Tower of the parliament building. Stacked side to side that would be enough coffee cups to cover ten tennis courts.

Now it has been a couple of years since we checked up on the number of disposable coffee mugs used on campus daily but the odds are that this number has gone up. So what's the solution? How can we get people to use fewer disposable mugs? First thing to do is to flip the question on it's head. Why would people want to use a disposable mug? Well it turns out that there are many reasons.

For one, all the disposable mugs are branded. That means there is an associated status that goes along with the cup. You know... that really expensive logo that indicates that you are better than all those other doops that drink the coffee of the commoners. A few years ago the students in the Faculty of Law wanted to have a Second Cup in the Fauteux Building because it was of better quality than the generic Chartwell's stuff. When the Desmarais building was built, Starbucks was a "must" because that is what trendy business people drink. Sure, you could just buy a reusable branded mug but they are usually super expensive.

Next, disposal mugs are very convenient. Let's face it, you don't have to drag around a dirty mug everywhere you go. Disposable mugs even have those little sleeves that protect your hands. How cute. But most of all they are more mobile, which is more convenient for your busy lifestyle. You can zip from class to class with no worries.

And on the stranger side of arguments..., I have even heard the arguments that the disposable mug makes the coffee taste better and that it cools the coffee down to just the right temperature before you drink it.

So now that we know a bit about the appeal of the disposable cup, we can start to talk about the solutions. I guess the first thing to do is make disposable mugs incredibly uncool and socially awkward. There are studies out there that show that people buy the Toyota Prius much more than any other hybrid because it looks like a hybrid (most other hybrids look like normal cars, nothing special) and so everyone else knows how environmentally friendly the owner is. So basically we need to do the same thing with reusable mugs.

Just as an aside, one really interesting idea I heard was to have warning labels on the side of disposable cups. You know, just like the ones on the side of cigarette packages. "Warning: this cup contributes significantly to the destruction of the environment"

Second, we need to reduce the convinience cost for disposable mugs. This is a tough one because it is hard to undo the convieniece of something that is... well.... very convenient. One thing to do is to change the pricing structure of disposable mugs so that the convinience cost is offset by the financial cost. An easy fix is to reverse the benefits structure so that rather than offering a discount for using a reusable mug, have a tax for disposable ones. This will push people to bring a mug in order to avoid being taxed (even if the cost is the same as what they have always been paying).

Another neat solution that fights fire with fire is the idea of mug hotels. Cafe Alt has a little nook where you can leave your mug until the next time you stop by for a coffee. The picture below is of the Cafe Ecolo where they have increased the convinience of reusable mugs by placing mugs right beside the coffee dispensers. What could be easier that grabbing a mug just as you are about to pour your coffee? Muggy Mondays is yet another example of how if you put things out there for people, they will take advantage of the convinience (in this case free coffee with you have a mug).

And finally, a little education can go a long way. Focusing on little details that will make people second guess the health and environmental costs of disposable cups can be very powerful. What about the potential chemical load of all that plastic and wax? What about the rapidly depleting space in landfills?

There are a lot of things that can be done to reduce the number of disposable mugs out there. But the first thing is to reset your mind frame. These cups are more damaging than one might think, and not just to the ecosystem. A survey in Eastern Canada about litter revealed that Tim Hortons coffee mugs were considered the most popular form of visual pollution. So next time you are at a home and about the rush out to your busy day, think about popping that mug into your bag.


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