Coquettish Environmentalism, and One Crazy Guy in a Trash Can

As one of the top commodities traded on an international basis, coffee gets a lot of positive and negative press. It figures substantially into every feasible area of debate, from human rights to economics and politics, and of course, especially here in Seattle, environmental concerns. In all of these things, there is a lot of praise to be given, and there also always seems to be a "dark side" to the issue.

In 2007, students at the University of Washington started a campaign under the banner "Sustainability is Sexy," to address one particular aspect of coffee's dark side: the environmental impact of disposable coffee cups. For the most part, the "to go" coffee cups so many of us enjoy our coffee-on-the-go from will probably never be recycled, but will end their lives as garbage. Early estimates for how many paper coffee cups would be used in 2010 put numbers around 23 billion. It doesn't take a degree in Environmental Science to realize that, if most of those 23 billion paper cups are going in the trash... well, that's an awful lot of trash. (Not to mention, the downfall of an approximate 9.4 million paper-producing trees.)

In response, campaigns such as the Sustainability is Sexy campaign set out to reduce the number of paper cups used by the coffee industry, through increased awareness, as well as incentives for coffee drinkers who provide their own, reusable coffee mugs. As you are no doubt aware, there are many options for reusable coffee mugs. And as you can no doubt imagine, there is an environmental impact pro/con list for the use of each different kind. It can get confusing. And I can't pretend to have the answers.

But, through extensive Google-ing of the topic, I can provide you with four handy tips to make your daily fix more environmentally friendly. (I could probably provide you with five, but would hate to encroach on the Top Five column's territory. So four it is.)

4. Just say no to Styrofoam. Styrofoam, it turns out, is even less biodegradable than Twinkies, and will essentially sit in a landfill for all eternity. With the possible exception of office coffee, we here in the Northwest don't really serve our coffee with polystyrene. So that's an easy one. And an easy one to fix if you work in an office guilty of the offense.

3. If you plan to sit in the coffee shop while you enjoy your beverage, get a "for here" mug. Not only does this save a paper cup, but it affords you a whole new set of criteria by which to grade a coffee shop. Some of the coffee shops around town have fabulous mug selections. And some of them really really don't.

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2. When you know you're going to be headed out the door as soon as you get your drink, try to bring a reusable mug of some kind. But do yourself a favor, and treat the choosing of this mug like the investment that it is. Make sure you get one from which you enjoy drinking your coffee. If it's a hassle, or it drips, or it tends to fall over, or it's ugly, or it isn't well-insulated, or you're ashamed of its corporate branding, or it's difficult to drink out of, or impossible to clean, etc. etc. etc., you will be substantially more likely to forget it at home. Get a travel mug that adds to your coffee experience, not one that detracts from it! Then, make sure you find out if your favorite cafes offer you any kind of pat on the back for your environmental efforts (such as a small discount on your order).

1. Above all else, no matter what, no matter how passionate you are about the environment, no matter how badly you want your $0.10 mug discount, no matter, no matter, no matter, do NOT go the Colin Beavan route. It was with considerable chagrin that I happened upon his January 2009 post from the No Impact Man blog today, which actually promoted the re-use of lightly-used coffee cups found in the garbage of your local coffee haunt.

I don't care how much you love trees, that is just gross.

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