James Murray: Takeaway coffee cups are a waste of resources

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

How does that takeaway coffee taste today? Pretty good, yeah? Well, after reading this hopefully you'll be convinced the production and use of disposable coffee cups is an irresponsible act that is harming our environment.

Having worked in cafes for 10 years and becoming more aware of environmental issues through studies and research at the University of Auckland, the problem of disposable coffee cups resonates with me. Even more so with the recent waste audit done by volunteers and led by Lexie Smits-Sandano who works as the sustainability and environmental assistant.

At the City Campus there are 12 cafes where roughly 40,000 associates and visitors can purchase takeaway coffees, so the ecological impact is potentially huge. This impact is greater if the cups and lids are not recycled.

But here lies a common misconception - that disposable coffee cups can be recycled. There are currently some cafes that use biodegradable cups, and all lids I have found are recyclable, but many people don't bother to remove them from the cup and place them in the correct bin.

In order for a disposable cup to hold liquid, it needs a wax or plastic lining, which prevents them from being processed with your average paper recycling. Also, the fact organic matter has contaminated it compromises this process further.

Someone who consumes five coffees a week will produce about 14kg of waste a year. If they were to use their own cup (or a reusable takeaway cup) rather than disposable, this would produce half the amount of carbon emissions, use half the energy, and about one-third of the water consumption throughout the process.

There is another problem created with the transportation of waste, sometimes to overseas buyers, which then brings in the issue of the cost to the environment by way of carbon emissions.

The convenience of throwing cups in the closest bin is an issue in itself and "green Kiwis" are becoming few and far between. A truly green Kiwi wouldn't use a disposable takeaway coffee cup in the first place.

Even though some cups used at the university are biodegradable, without the proper facilities they will still go to a landfill where, without the right conditions, the biodegradability of the cups is severely compromised.

It seems we, as a society, are more worried about how other societies are affected by our coffee consumption - Fair Trade for example - but all the while there is an impact here because of how we consume coffee in our own society.

Even though workers in other countries struggle to produce the beans at a sustainable cost, along the line there are costs to the consuming countries also. This entails the environmental cost of shipping, the production and disposal of cups, lids and packaging.

Haven't you noticed the focus on recycling, rather than the reduction and re-use of cups? Recycling here is the runt of the litter - it tries hard, but really isn't the best option.

So, do you think you can stop having takeaway coffees? Re-usable cups, although costly in production, over the long run are the lesser of two environmental evils.

Why not simply order a coffee and enjoy it in the surroundings of the cafe? Also, consider this, is convenience a right or a luxury and are luxuries truly affordable in the future considering our limited resources?

Since investigating this issue, the words disposable and landfill have become offensive to me. I do not purchase takeaway coffees any more and have persuaded others to do the same.

Individuals collectively have the power to change this issue for the better, even if it involves a little peer persuasion. However, systemic forces have created a desire for convenience and profit. From these forces, products such as takeaway cups are easily and readily consumed.

Social change takes time, and it has started, but that doesn't mean we can slow down now.

I have sent numerous emails to people involved in universities and waste management companies in New Zealand, Australia and the United States and have been really happy with the enthusiasm expressed in the replies.

While it can be depressing to learn, hear and read of all the issues we face as a society, it's better being aware than being ignorant, even if some consider it bliss.

James Murray is a former cafe worker and Auckland University student.

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