Ah, coffee. One of our worldwide addictions we can still feel mostly ok about. Of course, we all know too much caffeine can be harmful, but one nice cup of joe a day is nothing to feel guilty about, right? As long as it's not in a paper cup...
I'd venture to say that until the mid-90's, most American coffee consumption was done in the home or office, brewed in ordinary coffee makers. You know, Folgers and stuff. Unlike Europeans and others, we didn't really have a culture of buying coffee and drinking it in public. Then came the juggernaut of Starbucks. Slowly but surely, town by town, Americans were exposed to a whole new caffeinated world: mochas! americanos! double non-fat lattes with hazelnut! So, an entirely new coffee culture was born, but with an American twist. While in many other cultures coffee drinking is a central social activity--where friends of all ages can be found sitting in cafes for hours--our American version is a decidedly individual, disposable affair. Coffee on-the-go has become the norm, as have $3.95 frappuccinos, for better or worse. And as my friend Ruth pointed out, even when you do drink your coffee on location, many places STILL give you a to-go cup!
Starbucks alone goes through an estimated 2 billion paper cups annually! On top of that, imagine how many cups all the Peets, Coffee Beans, and few surviving independent coffee shops use, even daily. That's a lot of trees. In 2004, Starbucks bought 27,400 tons of cup stock made from virgin trees (i.e. fresh trees deflowered just for that purpose). And, as we saw with paper bags, the problems with paper cups are three-fold. A: Trees are cut down, reducing a natural counterbalance to global warming; B: fossil fuels are used in production, thus emitting greenhouse gases and other pollution; C: The enormous amount of trash created from these single-use products ends up in our landfills.
Starbucks has taken steps to lessen their environmental impact, as they should. This year they started making their cups out of 10% post-consumer recycled fiber. According to their own estimates, this will save 78,000 trees and reduce landfill content by 2,740 tons, or about 5.5 million pounds. This is a good step, but it's hard to see the 10% as little more than symbolic. Even if they eventually make their cups out of 100% recycled materials, there will still be the problem of all those wonderfully recycled cups being tossed in the garbage after one use.
The solution is simple: Bring your own coffee mug. There is a financial incentive as well: At Starbucks you get a 10 cent discount when you bring your own, and many other companies and cafes only charge you for a small size when you have your own mug. Most coffee chains and many independent cafes are now selling their own plastic and stainless steel mugs. (Or you can find some really sturdy ones on reusablebags.com--I swear I don't get a commission from them, they just have really great products!).
I've been using a plastic mug, which has been fine, and I just ordered a stainless steel heavy-duty one, so I'll let you know how it compares. Get in the habit of keeping it with you, and just remember to rinse it out after use! So easy.