We can't just change our coffee cups, we have to change our lives

nighthawks drinking coffee
Public Domain Edward Hopper's Nighthawks/ Art Institute of Chicago

Why design fancy cups that work like disposables? Just sit down and smell the coffee.

Katherine recently wrote about a radical solution to disposable coffee cups – an insulated stainless steel mug that you borrow like a library book. It was addressing this problem:

Next time you're walking down a city street, take a moment to notice how many people are carrying disposable coffee cups. A lot, right? It almost seems like an addiction, this compulsion to carry one's drink everywhere, and it comes at a steep environmental cost.

And I wondered, how did we get like this? What is convenient or comfortable walking with a disposable paper and plastic adult sippy cup?

drinking coffee circa 1955© 1955: Police officer Harris from Nassau County, Long Island, drinks a cup of coffee in his local diner. (Photo by Carsten/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Back in the day, if you wanted a coffee, you sat down in a diner or restaurant and you had a coffee. You got it in a china cup and you drank it right there. It was called a coffee break for a reason: you were taking a break. You were having a coffee. You weren't driving and drinking coffee or walking and drinking coffee. When you were done, your cup was washed and then used again in the same location. It was nice and circular.

Disposable cups created a whole new system, where the people who sold the coffee were no longer responsible for cleaning and reusing, and the customer didn't have to actually ever stop moving. No wonder it was so profitable; instead of having to pay for real estate for people to sit and drink, and equipment to wash and store the cups, we drink our coffee on city sidewalks or in our cars, and the taxpayer gets the burden of picking up the waste and taking it to the dump. It is a nice, neat, subsidized linear process from coffee vendor to landfill.

Vessel cups stacked© Vessel Works (used with permission)

The radical solution proposed by the Vessel stainless steel cup, or the RFID chipped CupClub that I liked so much, is trying to make a circle out of this linear process; but it is complicated and awkward because it is a much larger circle than the one from counter to dishwasher. They are all trying to give us the ability to do what we do with a paper cup, which will never be easy. But the problem isn't the cup, it's us.

men drinking coffeeJames Vaughan on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Instead, we should change our expectations instead of our cups. Sit down and get your coffee in a reusable china cup or mug. Talk to a friend or look at your phone. Enjoy the coffee.

We can't just change our coffee cups, we have to change our lives
Why design fancy cups that work like disposables? Just sit down and smell the coffee.

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