The problems stirred up by coffee cups

A Starbucks coffee cup and beans are seen in this photo taken in Washington, D.,C.


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: For a lot of people, few things bring as much pleasure in the morning as that first cup of coffee. And for a number of companies, coffee is certainly big business. But the beverage has created some complicated recycling and environmental questions as well. Marketplace's sustainability reporter Adriene Hill joins me now in the studio with the latest. Good morning, Adriene.

ADRIENE HILL: Good morning.

CHIOTAKIS: So what's the problem with coffee then?

HILL: Some of the ways we make coffee and the ways we drink coffee are posing some problems for companies that want to be environmentally friendly.

CHIOTAKIS: So break that down then.

HILL: Well I bet a whole lot of people listening right now have in your hands, or in your car cup holder, a paper coffee cup. It turns out those coffee cups are super hard to recycle.

CHIOTAKIS: But I thought paper you could recycle?

HILL: With paper and these paper cups there's this waxy coating that actually proves really problematic. Basically that waxy coating keeps your cup from turning into like a big pile of soggy coffee mush every morning, but it makes it tougher for recyclers. And there's just not that much interest in this paper. Starbucks is planning and wants very much by 2015 to make sure that all the paper cups it generates and it sells are recycled at its stores. But so far, recycling is only available at about 400 of its 7,500 shops, so they've got a long way to go.

CHIOTAKIS: And how many cups are we talking about, Adriene?

HILL: I've seen estimates as high as 58 billion with a "B" paper coffee cups are thrown out in the U.S. every year.

CHIOTAKIS: Wow. Now that's a lot of cups.

HILL: And we haven't even mentioned styrofoam.

CHIOTAKIS: What about the folks who make coffee at home? You said there were issues with that as well.

HILL: Yeah, K-Cups -- those little single-use packets of ground coffee, they sort of look like creamer containers -- are impossible to recycle. People like them though. They're convenient and they're easy. And it's a real problem for companies like Green Mountain Coffee. It sort of built its business around environmental responsibility, but in the third quarter of this year more than 80 percent of their net sales were related to those little, non-recyclable K-Cups.

CHIOTAKIS: So what to do?

HILL: Well, if you're a company like Starbucks or Green Mountain Coffee, you're trying to innovate and get your suppliers to innovate quickly. The rest of us regular coffee drinkers maybe should consider brewing our coffee the old-fashioned way or bringing along a cup if you go out.

CHIOTAKIS: Marketplace's Adriene Hill here in the studio. Adriene, thanks.

HILL: Thank you.

CHIOTAKIS: Feeling guilty about getting that morning coffee now? Well, there are 5 tips to make your cup more environmentally friendly at our Easy Answers blog.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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I'd be interested to hear what the boffins think the new breed of Biodegradable paper cups that are currently flooding the UK market. These started out being much more expensive than the regular single wall cups but are now starting to tumble in price as demand increases. Specifically i'm referring to the "Ingeo" type of cup available here: http://innsupplies.com/biodegradable/biodegradable-paper-cups .

Do these have the environmentally benefits claimed by suppliers?

Over the years, it has been nice to have fast food service with the various business organizations, however it has been noticed on the trips I take that going along more and more interstates, "Mount Trashmores" are growing and growing. Seems the cities are trying to compeate on who has the most and the highest! I think all paper plates, cups and knives, forks, and spoons should be outlawed from fast food establishments, and good old reuseable dishes, glasses, and silverware be "must" in all fast food establishments or soon all we will see lineing the the interstates are dumps!

Keurig, in response to environmentally conscious customers' discontent with the plastic throw-away K-CAPSules, manufacture and quietly market a "MY K-CUP" reusable coffee filter alternative for its single cup machines. The Maine-based Hannaford supermarket chain in NE shelf-stocks and sells "MY K-CUP"s at under $15. The "My K-CUP"s are also available on-line. Keurig lovers can now brew their favorite off-the-shelf coffee in a Keurig reusable coffee filter. Marketplace would be doing a true public service in mentioning "MY K-CUP"s in a follow-up to the August 25th story.

I'd like to hear more about huge coffee chains like Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's, and what they are doing about sustainability and extended consumer responsibility. McDonald's McCafe annual sales have grown to $1 billion according to AdAge (http://adage.com/article?article_id=144873) and they are competing with Starbucks-- but they are way behind on sustainability. They won't fill your mug or iced drink tumbler from home, saying it is a sanitary issue, Yet Starbucks offers a cup discount for the same thing.

Choosing between convenience can often be very difficult. Our company faced the same dilemma when trying to choose a coffee maker that: 1) Made great coffee; 2) Didn't require constant cleaning; and 3) Didn't unnecessarily pollute the environment.

After much research we decided on the Senseo coffee maker that uses the pods which are made from paper, not plastic so you can put them into a compost. If you make sure not to purchase the individually wrapped pods, you almost almost achieve that eco-friendly cup of coffee.

We also don't provide plastic or paper cups in the office. Everyone has to use their own mugs.

You should try Flavia. They have a program called terracycle that takes the old packets and makes new things with them! Also, depending on the paper cup, you will have some with PLA liner or newer ones with a corn based.

Bring your own cup/thermos and get a 10¢ discount at Starbucks. Drinking out of a ceramic cup = a better experience for the $ you're paying for the coffee. Also those plastic lids people drink their coffee through, well, the hot water releases chemicals in the plastic and you're drinking possible endocrine interrupters like BPA with your coffee. -- I'd love for you to look at the manufacturing of the items that go into take out coffee, including those creamers...and how environmentally damaging that could be... What is our coffee habit costing our world...

Hi Richard-- Good question. Let me look into it... Adriene


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