Why Did Coffee Cups and Soda Cups Get So Big?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 2.0. Coffee cups from oldest on left/ Lloyd Alter

There is more money in it for the Convenience Industrial Complex.

When I was a kid at summer camp, we drank out of green glass mugs. So when my wife and I got a cabin in the woods and stocked it with housewares from the shed at the dump, I was thrilled to find the same mugs and drink out of them every day. I also found cups and saucers from the '50s.

But they are also really small by today's standards. The cup with saucer holds 4 ounces, the green mug 6. The '80s vintage red mug holds 7, and the big one holds 8.

cafe au lait

cafe au lait/ Wordridden on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Until recently, the biggest coffee container I ever saw was the bowl of cafe au lait that I bought every morning in Paris during my summer trip there during University. I didn't have much money, but there was enough milk in that bowl that I got all the coffee and calories that I needed to last until lunch – because 16 ounces of milk and coffee is 320 calories, a whole meal.

When you went to restaurants and coffee shops where you sat at the counter, you got your coffee in a six-ounce cup. Restaurants want turnover, and if you make the coffee cup bigger, people take longer to drink and longer to leave. Then came the disposable coffee cup of the early sixties and everything changed.

Happy to serve you cups

© Happy to serve you

According to Michael Y. Park, quoted in Feast, “The Golden Age of the disposable coffee cup seems to have been the '60s, when four major things happened: the foam cup, the Anthora cup, the tearable lid, and 7-Eleven.” Graham Hill's We Are Happy To Serve You site explains:

The "Anthora" paper cup designed in 1963, features Greek motifs and two shields on which are written "WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU". Millions of these cups had fed the caffeine addictions of New Yorkers during all those years. The sheer number of them coupled with their forty-year history has given the cup icon status along with the yellow taxis and the Statue of Liberty.

7-Eleven became the first convenience store to sell coffee in a takeaway cup.

Beforehand, taking your beverage out of a store was not possible. Think of a cozy coffee shop that plays indie music and is known for their latte art. You probably go there to sit down, enjoy the ambiance and drink your coffee. Before 1964, this was the only option.

It was a very nice circular economy, where the nice little cup got filled, drunk, washed and refilled. But once it went linear, where the purchaser takes the cup out of the store, how long the customer took to drink it didn't matter, and vendors could keep cranking the size and cranking the income.

This is where the Convenience Industrial Complex gets busy, from the paper and plastics companies that make the single use disposables, to the car manufacturers who were happy to turn their products into mobile dining rooms, to the waste management and recycling industry that picks up after us.

Starbucks, for example, doesn't even put an 8-ounce cup on their price list; you have to ask for a "short." Twelve ounces is pretty much the standard, and of course there is the Grand at 16 and the Venti at 20. People now drink my entire French breakfast as they drive or walk.

And so the convenience Industrial Complex wins again. They offload their real estate costs to your car, their waste management to the taxpayer who picks up the garbage, and make ever greater profits from the ever greater sizes.

Double big gulp

Double big gulp/ Russell Bernice in Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

The story of soda pop is even more extreme, with 7-Eleven leading the way again. According to Annabelle Smith in the Smithsonian, it introduced the Big Gulp in 1976 at the suggestion of Coca-Cola reps. It started in Orange County as a test because a dubious product manager, Dennis Potts, thought it was "too damn big."

It was a Tuesday when they introduced the new cup size. They put up a handmade sign that read: “39 cents, No Deposit.” That following Monday, the franchise called Potts in Dallas asking for more cups. “Once we heard we sold 500 cups in a week, we got the message dog gone fast,” Potts says. “We moved as quickly as we could to get this thing out. It just took off like gangbusters.”

That led to the Super Big Gulp at 46 ounces, the self-serve dispenser to off-load labor costs to the customers, and eventually a 64 ounce Double Gulp that Ellen DeGeneres said would keep you going for “six weeks in the desert.”

Of course, this has contributed to the obesity crisis and the waste management crisis, but it is all oh so convenient, to have people buy giant cups, fill them themselves, and then just throw them away.

Readers will no doubt comment again that the companies are just giving people what they want, but it doesn't work that way. They price the drinks to encourage larger sizes by making it so much cheaper per ounce in larger volumes, but really, who in their right mind and body can drink 64 ounces of pop? If it was packed in refillable glass bottles, you probably couldn't lift the thing to your mouth.

If they took the convenience out of it by banning single-use containers, so people either had to bring their own or stay in the shop to drink it, or the company owned the container and had to take it back, wash it and reuse it, I suspect it would all standardize around smaller portions overnight. Nobody wants to carry a bucket.