starbucks reusable cup

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I don’t go to coffee shops that often, but I’m obsessed with the waste they generate. (Okay, I’m obsessed with the waste everyone generates).

Coffee shops are big business, and, as such, one with a big footprint. But it’s also an industry with a reasonable shot at attaining nearly zero waste, at least on the retail end-very little that goes into making coffee can’t be easily reduced/reused/recycled.

There are a few shops that make good choices: offering condiments in shakers, providing mugs for on-site consumption, and even extending composting programs to customers. Then there’s the majority that continue to do unspeakable things: doubling up paper cups, offering only wasteful single-serving sugar packets, using plastic lids and simply throwing out unsold baked goods.

But there’s one practice-one patently ridiculous practice when you get right down to it-that nearly all coffee shops engage in: the innocuous insulating sleeve for to-go coffee. Now, some are worse than others, but are any of them even good, let alone neutral? I mean, we’re talking about a mass-consumed item that a) didn’t exist 20 years ago, b) exists only to protect the hands of people who didn’t bring a reusable travel mug (or can’t figure out how to hold a hot cup of coffee without burning themselves) and c) is probably seen as a preemptive device for our wildly litigious society.

I burn my hand occasionally, but that’s because I’m a klutz; it doesn’t make me think that I need to kill a tree to span the 10 minutes between when I get my coffee and when it cools enough for me to pick it up without caution.

I’m depressed, fascinated and dumbfounded by coffee sleeves. I just wiki-ed the term “coffee sleeve” and found that they were invented in 1993 by some dude named Jay Sorenson. (Thanks Jay! That would rule if you’re retired on an island living off of patent money from your “java jackets.”) Anyway, I collected a whole bunch of these things from coffee shops across town to get an idea of what’s being used, and why.

I had no idea that coffee insulators came in so many different sizes and styles (and I certainly didn’t know they’d become a space for glossy advertising. $2 off my next Visine purchase? Sweet.).

One common trait among cardboard sleeves (and plenty of other paper products) is that they want you to know how much recycled content they consist of. Keep in mind the difference between something boasting a recycling symbol, the level of post-consumer content, and that its simply “recyclable” (one of my favorite greenwashing terms).

Of the various sleeves I found, the best is a bland looking one with 100 percent recycled paper and made of 90 percent post consumer material. The worst (of the cardboard candidates) is definitely the Saxbys: “100 percent recyclable and post-consumer.” Yes, cardboard is recyclable, but how much post-consumer content is there?

To my mind, the worst of all of them is the Styrofoam “degradable” sleeve (sadly named the “Eco Sleeve”). Practically, there is nothing “eco” about “degradable” plastic. Just about anything is degradable, and it will eventually degrade over X-hundred years, or break up into smaller pieces to choke up our waterways.

Sure, plastic is cheaper and insulates better against heat. But these sleeves aren’t recyclable in any economic measure, and, practically, they do not biodegrade. This is where paper cups swoop for the glory. Yes, their recyclability is debatable, but their compostability is not.

With millions of cups of coffee consumed per day, it’s a reasonable estimate that millions of these things are being disposed of per day. How hard would it be to tell your barista to hold off on the sleeve and the lid? Give it a shot. If your morning coffee was that much worse, you should think about bringing your own cup. Heck, just bring your own cup and help make this whole discussion moot.

My ideal coffee shop:

1. Reusable mugs for sale (with a discount for use).

2. A compost receptacle available for customers next to the recycling can and trash can (which should have next to nothing in it)

3. Give away coffee grinds to anyone interested in starting a composting effort at home. Have a composting 101 fact sheet on hand for the curious (Starbucks claims to do this, although I haven’t found one that knows about this program, even in San Francisco).

4. Environmentally preferable purchasing program created by the coffee shop to minimize impact up front, including no “degradable” coffee sleeves and minimal usage of plastics.

5. No single-use items. Feature a sign explaining why they’re lame.

6. Composting of baked goods and coffee grinds. If paying for composting is totally unreasonable, build a simple bin out back.

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