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The problems stirred up by coffee cups

Adriene Hill Aug 25, 2010

The problems stirred up by coffee cups

Adriene Hill Aug 25, 2010


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.

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