“Disposable” Coffee Cups? I Think Not!

Have you ever gone into a Starbucks or some other national coffee chain and sat down to have a cup of coffee? If you are like most people, you stood in line at the counter, ordered your non-fat milk half-decaf half-caf chai latte expressochino and then sat down to drink it while enjoying the soothing sounds of James Taylor or Kenny G. If you are like most Americans, you drank that description defying concoction out of a paper cup with a plastic top and a cardboard heat guard. And if you are like most Americans, you tossed it in the trash before you ever left the store.

Does this make sense to anyone?

Depending on where you go for your information, Starbucks gives away anywhere from 2 billion to 52 billion paper cups (and plastic tops and cardboard heat shields) a year. Now that’s a wide margin for error, but when you recognize that Americans alone consume 400 million cups of coffee a day (that’s 146 trillion a year … give or take a trillion) you realize that there are a ton of coffee cups and their acutraments being given out everyday. And when you realize that on average only 10 percent of everything that’s recycleable is recycled (the coffee cups are coated with plastic so can’t be recycled anyway), we’re talking about a lot of landfill space.

So what am I getting at? Well first off, at 400 million cups a day, maybe we need to ask ourselves whether as a nation, we are all a little more amped up than we should be. Having said that, let’s start with an in-store stop. I’m sorry, but there is truly no reason whatsoever that we should be forced to use a “disposable” cup when drinking a fresh jolt of caffeine in the store that we bought it from.

I don’t mean to pick on Starbucks, as all the chains are the same, and Starbucks has taken steps to lessen their impact, but I think it’s high time that we all told coffee houses that we aren’t going in for this anymore. Right now, I implore each of you out there who drinks coffee in the store, to head over there and ask for your coffee in a ceramic mug, and when they say they don’t do that, tell them that you’ll go and find somewhere that does and you’ll be back when they get with the program. Now I know that many of you have your favorite places to go to and donít want to ruin your routine, so do it somewhere else instead. The idea is to send a message and trust me, if half of their in-store customers did this tomorrow, there’d be a meeting and things would change.

But let’s take a moment and look at the bigger issues with “disposable” coffee cups.

For starters, due to strict FDA standards, materials that come into contact with liquids meant for consumption cannot contain much, if any, recycled material. This is why Starbucks only has 10 percent recycled content in their cups. A savings for sure, but not enough. As a result, almost all of the new cups that are sold are made from virgin paper (read trees) that are bleached, chemically treated, and who knows what else. It’s a nasty process and extremely labor, energy, and resource intensive. Just look at the chart below from Sustainability is Sexy and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Once you see the numbers, you realize it’s a complete mess. Now I’m not saying we cut out coffee (lord knows I’d get nothing done without it), rather that we take a different approach, change our routines a bit, and tread a little more lightly in the process. I’ve been on that train for quite some time and I can assure you it’s not that hard. You’ll feel better, possibly drink better java, and most certainly save some money at the same time.

Next up: How to stop the “disposable” cup express(o) from leaving the station in the first place.

Oh, and for those of you who were anticipating the final chapter in my water bottle saga, hang tight, it’s on the way in a few weeks, just pre-empted by some scheduling conflicts. But I promise you, it’ll be worth the wait.


Dave Chameides is an environmental educator and freelance filmmaker. He writes alternative fuel articles for Edmunds.com and maintains the blogs 365 Days of Trash and Achieving Sustainability. While he is presently saving all of his trash for a year to better understand his environmental impact, his main focus is sustainability through education and believes that with knowledge all things are possible.


William C
William C3 months ago

Thank you.

W. C
W. C3 months ago


Ben B.
Ben B3 years ago

If you want a coffee, take your own cup with you... or is that too simple?

Elena T.
Elena P3 years ago

Thank you :)

Ecofriendly P.
Ecofriendly P.3 years ago

I read on many articles about the paper cup annual usage and garbage. The garbage cups should be properly disposed or recycled to reduce landfill space.

Ecofriendly P.
Ecofriendly P.4 years ago

Your news is very informative and shows the importance of recycling paper cups.

Ramona Thompson6 years ago

Paper products are bleached white with a substance called dioxin. Anyone old enough to remember Love Canal and all the deaths, cancers, and deformities there due to dioxin?

f not old enough to remember,you ought to read up on it. It was a horrific place out of a nightmarish movie scene.

Beng Kiat Low
low beng kiat6 years ago


Lucy R.
.7 years ago

The travel promotional mug is most importantly portable and is much more stable compared to other types of beverage containers. The main advantage is that liquids do not spill over when walking, running or riding a vehicle...
m3 real

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p7 years ago

if i go to a coffeeshop, i drink my coffee there.