Keen on Your Caffeine? Well, What Happens to the Cup When You’re Done?

This article was originally published in Extra Newsfeed.

Enjoying a nice iced coffee.

Enjoying a nice iced coffee.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — I spent last Thursday morning walking down the streets of New York City, and all I could see was Starbucks cups.

Starbucks cups littering the sidewalk, Starbucks cups strewn about small patches of dirt in which trees are planted. Starbucks cups clutched tightly in the hands of young, freshly showered millennials on their way to work.

Starbucks cups overflowing from trash cans, piled on top of other refuse, casually discarded.

New Yorkers are particularly keen on their caffeine in the morning, and I suspect a similar scene unfolds across the country as people begin their daily routine: get up, get dressed, head to work. On the way, stop for your morning coffee.

To you, it matters dearly how your drink is prepared; to me, it doesn’t matter at all. The only thing I can see is the disposable cup you’ll be throwing out when you’re done.

It’s been a while since I’ve bought coffee from a vendor with any degree of frequency, but I’m just as guilty as anyone else of trashing the cup when I do. I make every effort to put it in the recycling bin, but let’s be honest — it doesn’t always work that way.

If I’m walking down the street and demand a cup of coffee, it’s reasonable to expect that a vendor is going to supply not only the coffee but a cup from which I can drink it. It is clearly in the vendor’s interest to do so —they aren’t going to sell much coffee if they expect every passerby to have their own mug.

Coffee vendors provide coffee cups. The coffee is usually gone within a few minutes and when it is, the coffee cup loses its purpose. Once the coffee loses its utility, we (the consumer) discard the cup.

A discarded coffee cup, in economic terms, is an externality. The transaction between the vendor and the customer is the exchange of money for coffee. Once that transaction is completed, there is no reasonable expectation that the vendor has any responsibility to deal with the coffee cup — outside of providing a trash receptacle into which it can be discarded.

The cup is a byproduct of the transaction, considered a negative externality (as opposed to a byproduct of the transaction with a positive effect).

Economically speaking, it has no further use. It can’t be cleaned and reused. It can be recycled, but its primary purpose has been fulfilled: the customer has drunk their coffee.

Into the trash, it goes. Paper if it’s hot coffee; plastic if it’s iced. The next morning, the customer repeats this process, and at the end of the week has generated a half-dozen negative externalities from these economic transactions: discarded coffee cups.

Where do they all go?

It’s a fanciful notion to imagine that plastic cups in the bin have a 100% recycle rate and will again become plastic Starbucks cups. Much of it will go to the landfill, taking hundreds of years to decompose into organic matter.

The old adage that many of us learned as children urges us to reduce, reuse, and recycle. The order is important. Recycling is the last resort: if we actually care about reducing the negative externalities from economic transactions that affect our planet in a negative way, we have to reduce the amount of waste that we generate. This might mean carrying around a coffee mug, but we need to start being aware of the waste we generate.

Meaningful life change takes years to implement, but we must first be awareof our situation: of how much trash we generate. The next time you walk down the street, keep an eye on how many coffee cups the general public is holding and think about where that’s going to end up once the latte is finished.

Is it really worth discarding such a vast amount of trash just so we can get our caffeine fix?