Would a 25 Cent Charge for a Disposable Coffee Cup Make a Difference?

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Happy to serve you cups

That's what they are doing in Berkeley, and it will spread.

Before Graham Hill founded TreeHugger, he had another little business, making ceramic versions of the classic New York Anthora "we are happy to see you" takeout coffee cups. Perhaps he should be gearing up his production, because it appears that cities are finally getting serious about dealing with single use paper cups.

First up is the city of Berkeley, California, which is requiring a 25 cent charge for every take-away cup. And it's not just crazy Berkeley; Emily Chasan and Hema Parmar write in Bloomberg in a post titled Starbucks, Dunkin race against bans, taxes on disposable cups.

Overwhelmed by trash, jurisdictions around the world are banning single-use plastic takeaway containers and cups. Europe says plastic beverage cups have to go by 2021. India wants them out by 2022. Taiwan set a deadline of 2030. Surcharges like Berkeley’s are likely to get more common in an attempt to quickly change consumer behavior before more outright bans.

The problem is huge, with the US tossing 120 billion cups every year, a fifth of the world's total. Companies are working hard to develop a better disposable cup, talking about "moon shots" in cup design, but as the Bloomberg writers note, it wouldn't make much of a difference.

A cup that can degrade more quickly would be one solution—Europe’s ban makes an exception for compostable cups that disintegrate in 12 weeks—but even if such a cup were readily available and cost-effective, the U.S. doesn’t have enough of the industrial composting facilities needed to break them down. In that case, they head to the landfills, where they won’t decompose at all.

Will a 25 cent charge for a cup make a difference? TreeHugger Katherine has noted that after Starbucks introduced a 5p charge in London – which she described as "an environmental effort that's about as insipid as their milky lattes" – they saw a 150 percent increase in reusable cup use. But 150 percent of not very much is still not very much. She wrote:

The relative numbers are still small, however. Prior to the trial beginning, only 2.2 percent of customers brought their own cups, and now that number is up to 5.9 percent. The report says that the biggest change has occurred in the mornings, with 8.4 percent of customers bringing their own cups.

Back at Bloomberg, they note one alternative that Graham Hill would be happy to supply:

Coffee shops know reusable cups are a good solution, but right now at franchises they can be sort of an "operational nightmare," says Dunkin’s Murphy. Servers never know if a cup is dirty or if they should wash it, and it’s hard to know how much to fill a small or medium coffee in a large mug.

Well, yes, because their entire business model and the model for every coffee chain is to get people to take it away, so they don't need to have the staff or the space or the equipment to deal with reusable cups. It's why we have written that we have to change not just the cup, but the culture.:

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.

The Bloomberg writers conclude that the Berkeley surcharge will motivate people to change their behaviour. But it's not enough; the model is broken. It's based on convenience and people will pay a quarter for that, just as they pay 5p for it in London.

Sicilian coffee

Erik Törner/CC BY 2.0

Katherine has suggested that we should drink coffee like Italians do, "where people get their caffeine fix from a quick espresso served at the bar in a ceramic cup," instead of walking around with a sixth of a gallon Venti. I have suggested that we can't just change our coffee cups, we have to change our lives.

The Bloomberg article perpetuates the myth that you can develop a disposable cup that is totally benign. But you cannot; it is the circular economy fantasy, that a coffee cup will magically find its way from the consumer to the recycling facility to the cup manufacturer to the retailer to the consumer without vast inputs of energy and effort and subsidy. It will never happen. The only thing that will work is to actually change the model and probably ban disposables.

Perhaps all the New York coffee shops will want Graham's cups for the nostalgia factor.