The Coming Cup-tastrophe 

This is the Most Important Article about Paper Cups You Will Ever Read.

By M. William Helfrich

& Justin Wescoat Sanders

Illustrations by Danny Hellman

There are two people writing this story, and we both formerly worked as baristas at a coffee shop called World Cup Coffee and Tea. The shop is in the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, aka the Ecotrust Building, aka this environmentally conscious town's most environmentally conscious structure. Its top floor houses Portland's Office of Sustainable Development. Its middle floor bustles with Ecotrust's glut of fishery, forestry, and conservation programs. Its ground floor is lined with progressive, green retail outlets: a Patagonia clothing store, a new-age pharmacy parlor, a Hot Lips Pizza (known for using organic, local ingredients), and World Cup, whose coffee beans are all organic and fair-trade certified.

Every day we worked in this perfect little bubble of green, and every day we watched, with initial surprise, and then frustration, and eventually anger, as the same ugly chunk of dirt slipped through a crack in its otherwise smooth, shiny facade. We watched as people representing every different facet of the environmental groups and businesses around us--from office temps to executive members of Ecotrust, from retail workers to aides in the Office of Sustainable Development--came in daily, twice daily, and even thrice daily, to order their short soy chai lattes, or their cups of black coffee, or their tall white chocolate mochas... and then take them away in paper cups.

Sure, there were those who faithfully brought their own reusable mugs every day, but they were easily outnumbered. And we wondered, mystified, why in this greenest of buildings, where everyone is gathered together under the expressed commonality of being "environmentally friendly," how so many people could neglect taking an extra ten seconds to pick up a commuter mug and bring it to the coffee shop.

And then we thought, well, maybe we're the ones who are ignorant; maybe these environmentalists know something we don't. Maybe in this day and age the blatant wasting of a paper cup is a trivial matter compared to all the earth-saving goodness we practice on a daily basis.

But then we got to thinking about the number of coffee shops in this progressive, java-lovin' town; the Stumptowns and the Fresh Pots, the World Cups and Peets, the Coffee Peoples and Coffee Time and the tons and tons of Starbucks, and every little mom 'n' pop shop on every corner and in every strip-mall. And we thought about all the paper cups flying out of them, with environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike, and we thought, well, maybe, somehow, there's something that they don't know. Or even worse: maybe there's something they do know, and they're still not doing anything about it. Or maybe our angst over paper cup use was little more than a side effect of our self-righteous environmental egomania, i.e. a pet peeve. Either way, it bothered us, and so we decided to find out more.

CUPS KILL... TREES, THAT IS

We began at the beginning: Starbucks, the world's largest purveyor of all things coffee, and a corporation that's allegedly active in waste reduction and promoting commuter mug use. "Since 1994, Starbucks has relied on the Green Team," reads a company memo, "a group of our store partners (employees) in North America, [who] identify opportunities and champion initiatives that help improve the company's environmental performance."

Despite its good intentions, Starbucks' actual environmental statistics tell a slightly different story.

"If only 50 customers a day in every store were to use reusable mugs," continues the Green Team memo, "Starbucks would save 150,000 disposable paper cups daily! This equals 1.7 million pounds of paper, 3.7 million pounds of solid waste, and 150,000 trees a year."

"If only" is a key part of the little factoid. In 2000, according to that same memo, Starbucks estimated their customers actually only saved 3600 trees--a far, far cry from the hoped-for mark. "If only" 50 customers a day in every Starbucks store did use commuter mugs but they clearly don't. In fact, if you spread 3600 trees per year saved across all of Starbucks' 6500 stores worldwide, it's really only about ONE customer per day for each Starbucks store who's using a commuter mug, which means the rest of the 49 are using paper cups. And the painful truth is, the average Starbucks does many times more than 50 customers a day, if not an hour.

Starbucks will not release the actual amount of paper cups its stores use for competitive reasons, but based on these statistics, it's abundantly clear that 150,000 trees per year used/wasted on paper cups is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Green Team memo also mentions that the 3600 trees saved in 2000 were saved by customers "using their commuter mugs more than 13 million times." For a little update on that statistic we consulted the Starbucks website, which neglects to say how many trees were killed in 2002, but does mention its customers used their mugs an estimated 12.7 million times, or 0.3 million less than in 2000. We're not mathematicians, but it doesn't take Albert Einstein to figure out that if less customers are using reusable mugs, less trees are being saved to boot.

And let's not forget there are at LEAST as many NON-Starbucks coffee shops in the world who are also going through tons of paper cups a day. And then there are the paper cups coming out of fast food restaurants worldwide, which is probably a number too terrifying to comprehend, but also for a different story. For this story is about the Starbucks coffee culture, a culture that probably isn't even surprised by these scary statistics and cryptic speculations, because it's a culture informed about the environment, which has been trained to think about the consequences of its actions.

But this culture also continues to indulge in paper cups, a significantly destructive pursuit that would be easily remedied with the use of a simple commuter mug. Perhaps using a mug to "save the earth" is just too abstract for most people; after all, if you can't witness the impact of your actions, how do you know they're having any impact at all? Perhaps we need to look at things from a level anyone can understand, which is to say money.

LET'S GET DOWN TO BUSINESS

Paper cup excess in Portland becomes even more mystifying from a business angle. Dan Welch, the owner of World Cup Coffee, informed us that the average 16-ounce paper cup, replete with cardboard sleeve, store artwork, plastic lid, and stir stick, costs 22 cents to produce. This means if a store does, say, 200 customers a day (and a successful, busy coffee shop will do several times that), they will blow $44 on cups alone, or approximately the wages of a single $7.50-per-hour barista working a standard six- to eight-hour shift with a lunch break. So, the less coffee shops spend on paper cups, the more they can pay their employees. Where else can this phenomenon extend? How about every fast food restaurant in America? How much more money could we give all those poor bastards steaming in McDonald's kitchens by just making a few take-out trays reusable?

But let's keep it simple. Why aren't more coffee shops promoting commuter mugs? Larger chains like Starbucks actively promote their mugs, and give discounts for mug use, but the trend is still notably absent from many smaller shops. In addition to saving money on cups and being able to pay their employees more (or spending the money on less altruistic things, which is their prerogative--the point is, they HAVE the money) shop owners would also be making money on merchandise, as mugs can range in price anywhere from five to $20. One mug sold can make back the price of almost 100 paper cups.

What's more, when we talk paper cup expense, we're really only talking raw materials. As Steve Apotheker, a Senior Analyst in Metro's office of Solid Waste and Recycling says, "The cost of one paper cup totally misses the true cost to the business of the labor involved, and the gas involved in moving these cups around." Or how about the cost of disposing the cups? According to Bruce Walker, Sustainable Development's Solid Waste & Recycling Program Manager, "What we know from looking at the concrete garbage cans that are out on public streets is that a lot of the waste in them is either coffee cups or the plastic containers people get for takeout food... Our office spends over $200,000 a year for pick-up of these trashcans. We'd rather not do that."

Walker goes on to say that Sustainable Development charges the hauling company that transports public trash to landfills, which in turn charges the businesses in the neighborhoods where the cans reside.

"Essentially, all Portland businesses are paying for the collection of a lot of coffee cups, whether it's a coffee shop or an auto shop," says Walker, ruefully. "The auto repair places probably aren't generating a lot of garbage that's being put in those cans."

Of course, the 210,000 smackers businesses pay for the public cans is a drop in the bucket compared to what they pay for having their privately accumulated trash carted away.

"Businesses all have their own trash, and they pay their hauler directly for that," says Walker. "And in those charges there's a small amount that comes to the city, and we in turn spend it on recycling programs and everything else we work with the business community on."

THE QUICK FIX

Both the Office of Sustainable Development and Metro deal with the programs Walker is referring to--OSD at the city level and Metro at the regional level. Currently, both groups are in the process of developing an ambitious citywide composting system. The program would be designed to compost food from restaurants, but could also include paper cups.

Steve Apotheker explains, "Because the City of Portland has banned the use of [Styrofoam] cups, you can only use paper, at least in the Portland area. It may be possible, as this program starts, for coffee shops that want to recycle scraps, coffee grounds, and paper cups--if they come up with a way to keep them segregated from plastic lids and straws--to compost this material."

So is this a solution for the problem of paper cups? Apotheker says, "I'm not advocating this as the dream strategy, because it's a huge waste of energy, mostly fossil fuel, that has gone into making a paper cup." But he adds, "Composting is better than disposal."

Both Steve Apotheker and Bruce Walker and those they work with would rather that cups not be composted at all.

"You could reduce the number of [trash] collections if [cups] were simply crushed," says Walker, "or better yet if they just weren't there in the first place."

On that end, Dan Blue of Community Environmental Services, a research and service unit of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at PSU, has recently performed some experiments. His group placed a large display in a Seattle's Best on campus encouraging commuter mugs by pointing out the wasteful alternative. After the display was up for a week, they went back to find that instead of the average sale of eight mugs, that week the shop sold 30 mugs. Blue says, "I think there is a lot of opportunity to change public perception [about reusable mugs]."

Those involved in setting up these programs are optimistic they'll eventually change the tide of public behavior. The success of the campaign to convince people to recycle was due to showing people that it takes such minimal effort on their part. Nowadays, putting something in the recycling bin is as easy as putting something in a trashcan. But can reducing coffee cup waste ever become that convenient?

Blue says, "Switching to a reusable mug carries with it the perception that it's inconvenient only because it is different than the norm. Change is scary to people and in most cases folks will go with what they are used to."

But once commuter mugs become the norm, argues Walker, it's no big deal.

"I mean, sometimes you're going to be out and not have a mug with you," he explains, "but if you have one in your car/bike/office, it becomes part of your normal routine."

STICK IT TO THE SPOTTED OWL

It's possible that none of this has convinced you. Maybe by this point you even despise the self-importance that people like us feel from using our own mugs, and feel uncomfortable with the idea of changing minute daily habits for the sake of something as abstract as "saving the environment." Fortunately, there's even a logic for people like you. Just keep in mind what Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel wrote in a recent article: "Our strongest arguments for a healthy environment are selfish: we want it for ourselves, not for threatened species like snail darters, spotted owls, and Furbish louseworts."

So you see, it's not for the Earth and its creatures that you'll want to do this, but for you, for human survival. YOU are your own best reason to use reusable mugs. The next time you're in line at Starbucks, and they say, "Will you have that for here or to go," give a big fuck you to the Furbish louseworts, and ask for it in a mug.

And while you're at it, stick it to the spotted owl, and have your pastry on a ceramic plate.

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