Eco Advice Pilot Column #1
November 19, 2007

A Café Dilemma : Throwaway Cup or Takeaway Mug

Q  How many disposable coffee cups do we use in the United States every year?  What is the environmental impact?  How many times would I need to use a thermal mug to achieve environmental benefit and cost benefits?                            

Apple Vally, Minnesota

A  Dear Sam,

Disposable cups used for coffee and other beverages are a cause for concern. Americans throw away a mind-boggling 39 billion cups per year: that’s around 25 billion made of Styrofoam (aka polystyrene) and more than 14 billion made from paper.  This routes 385 million pounds of garbage – about the weight of 1,300 blue whales – straight to the dump.  Even worse, polystyrene cups will still be there in 500 years, although by then people will probably ingest their java in capsule form.

Disposable cups aren’t easy on the environment at the beginning of their lifecycle, either. Petroleum or trees provide the starting material, and producing the cups requires energy.  Waste and contaminants from manufacturing, as well as from packaging and transporting cups to coffee shops, add to their ecological toll.  But because disposable cups are cheap –polystyrene cups sell for four cents a pop – they remain popular with retailers.
Beyond the cups, cafés typically provide a sleeve when coffee is really hot, plus a plastic lid to top it off.  These fashionable accessories come from our natural resources and end up in landfills as well.
For conscientious coffee drinkers, is a reusable thermos the way to go? Before running out to buy a day-of-the-week set of stainless steel travel mugs, be aware that manufacturing these, too, strains the environment. Even though 60 percent of stainless steel is recycled, it still takes energy to mine a bit more metal and to produce and transport each mug – 369 times what it takes to make a single polystyrene cup. You’ll have to use your mug every day for a year before the energy costs balance out – plus, you’ll have to wash it, using more water and energy.

Bottom line: anything you use to feed your coffee habit has an environmental impact, but you can minimize it by committing yourself to a monogamous relationship with a good travel mug.  Stay away from plastic – it’s petroleum-based – and invest in a quality stainless steel thermos you can use for many years.  When possible, buy one that is dishwasher-safe and wash it with a full load.  Keep your mug in your car or someplace conspicuous, so you’ll have it at hand the next time you drop by a coffee shop.  Some places even give you a discount for providing your own cup, which, over time, will offset your initial investment. So until coffee capsules become the norm, re-using your own personal mug is the most resource-efficient way to go.

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about disposable and reusable cups.

A Second Chance for Packing Peanuts

Q  Sometimes when I ship items I need to use packing peanuts.  Once I went to the recycling center and took some from the bin of peanuts that had been recycled, although I felt funny.  I would think that an easy way to reduce waste of packing peanuts would be to advertise that anyone can do that. Is there anyway to promote that?

Palo Alto, California

A  Dear Jane,

The holidays are upon us and it feels like society is conspiring against you when all you’re trying to do is make the world a slightly cleaner place. Reduce, reuse, recycle – why doesn’t the second “R” get the love it deserves?  Regretfully, at many recycling facilities it is not considered appropriate to help yourself to packing peanuts or other recycled materials.  Often “No salvaging products” signs are posted to protect the center’s liability.  (Translation: “Thou shalt not dumpster dive on these premises.”)  Certain centers consider it downright theft to remove materials from a recycling bin.  Others are set up more like swap yards where one person’s waste can become another’s treasure, but, unfortunately, these seem to be less common.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope for people who just want to get rid of leftover packing peanuts without relegating them to the landfill.  It’s the award-winning Peanut Hotline, operated by an industry group called the Plastic Loose Fill Council. In operation since 1991, the council offers a toll-free number, 800-828-2214, to help callers locate the nearest collection center for dropping off peanuts that will be reused by local businesses.  These listings are also available via the group’s website, Alas, the service does not include information on where to swap if you need some of the little nuts yourself.

If you want to promote swapping, here are a few quick and easy ideas: Contact your local public works department and make the suggestion. Check in with a community non-profit that focuses on environmental issues.  Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or post an opinion on a well-read blog.  Action may well follow.

Until then, it will continue to be easier to get rid of old peanuts than to find used ones.  The next time you are scrounging for padding, give crumpled old newspapers or magazines a whirl.  You'll save yourself both a trip to the recycling center and a potential run-in with one of its security guards. 


Hot Hot Hot -- Reusable stainless steel mugs can keep beverages hot -- or cold -- for several hours, while the outside of the mug remains comfortable to the touch. Based on century-old technology, the construction is both simple and elegant. Basically, two layers of stainless steel are sandwiched around a vacuum space that contains no air. The space insulates the contents of the mug from temperature change, keeping hot things hot and cold things cold.

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about packing peanuts.