I don’t go to coffee shops that often, but I’m obsessed with the waste they generate. (Okay, I’m obsessed with the waste everyone generates). ¶ Coffee shops are big business, and, as such, one with a big footprint. But it’s also an industry with a reasonable shot at attaining nearly zero waste, at least on the retail end—very little that goes into making coffee can’t be easily reduced/reused/recycled.
There are a few shops that make good choices: offering condiments in shakers, providing mugs for on-site consumption, and even extending composting programs to customers. But the majority continues to do unspeakable things: doubling up paper cups, offering only wasteful single-serving sugar packets, using plastic lids and simply throwing out unsold baked goods.
There’s one practice—one patently ridiculous practice when you get right down to it—that nearly all coffee shops engage in: the seemingly innocuous insulating sleeve for to-go coffee. This is a mass-consumed item that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. I collected a whole bunch of these things from coffee shops across town to get an idea of what’s being used, and why.
I had no idea that coffee insulators came in so many different sizes and styles (and I certainly didn’t know they’d become a space for glossy advertising; $2 off my next Visine purchase? Sweet.).
One common trait among cardboard sleeves (and plenty of other paper products) is that their manufacturers want their prodcuts to appear green. But keep in mind there’s a difference between a recycling symbol, the level of post-consumer content, and that its simply “recyclable.”
In the accompanying picture of various sleeves I collected, the best is the bland-looking one with 100 percent recycled paper, made of 90 percent post-consumer material. That means the sleeve is made, for the most part, from paper people put in their recycling bins. The worst (of the cardboard candidates) is the one that says: “100 percent recyclable and post-consumer.” Yes, we know that cardboard is recyclable, but are you saying it’s also 100 percent post-consumer? That’s very unlikely, and probably misleadingly written on purpose.
To my mind, the worst of the lot is the styrofoam “degradable” sleeve (inappropriately named the “Eco Sleeve”). There is nothing eco about “degradable” plastic. Just about anything is degradable (it might take a few hundred years), but when it does break down, the smaller pieces will choke up our waterways.
Plastic is cheaper and insulates better against heat, but these sleeves aren’t recyclable in any way, and, for all intents and purposes, they do not biodegrade. This is where paper cups swoop in for the glory. Yes, their recyclability is debatable, but their compostability is not.
With millions of cups of coffee consumed per day, it’s a reasonable estimate that millions of sleeves are being disposed of per day. Try telling your barista to hold off on the sleeve and the lid. If your morning coffee experience is that much worse, you should think about bringing your own cup. Heck, just bring your own cup and help make this whole discussion moot.
Tyler Weaver is a garbage and compost expert who’s been obsessed with waste since he climbed into his first Dumpster two decades ago. Read more of his musings at tylertalkstrash.com and crazyaboutcompost.com.