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The 50-Million-Tree Slurp

Hey coffee drinker, isn't it time you started mugging it up?

By Ruben Anderson 30 Apr 2008 |

Ruben Anderson is a consultant focusing on regenerative systems.

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How to give forests a coffee break.

We have some amazing technology developing here in Canada. Homegrown high-tech whiz-bang -- Nobel Prize material, really.

This system is too good to be true: it can provide fuel, or be easily processed into one of our most versatile building materials; it can sequester CO2 to slow global warming; be harvested for food; increase ecosystem health and biodiversity by providing habitat for animals, birds, plants and insects; slow damaging storm-water runoff; purify water; and help remediate contaminated soils. The feedstock is free and abundant, and maintenance on the system is negligible.

Or, we can destroy trees for pulp to make paper coffee cups, which, after 15 minutes of use, we throw in the garbage can. Then, we pick the cups up with pollution-belching trucks and throw them in a dump, where they rot and create more greenhouse gases. To say this is not an elegant solution to beverage transportation is quite an understatement -- but what could we replace it with?

I have never really understood the delight with which coffee companies brand their paper cups. After all, we usually throw stuff in the garbage because it is low quality or broken. Take a walk down any inner-city alley and you will quickly get a picture of which mattresses sag too soon and which televisions are prone to burning out. A look in the garbage cans will tell you which coffee shops are serious about the environment, and which ones are causing serious environmental damage.

Disposable taste buds?

There are lots of problems with disposable cups. Up to 90 per cent of flavour comes from the aroma you inhale, so the non-recyclable styrene lids make your morning jolt about one-tenth as delicious.

Paper cups are all lined with plastic to prevent sogginess and, if you want to keep your reproductive organs functioning, plastic is seldom considered a good marriage with hot or acidic liquids.

And of course, trees are elegant and amazing organisms that deserve better than to be pulped into coffee cups -- think Stradivarius. Forests generate value with an ease industry will never replicate. The unmeasured economic value provided by Canada's boreal forest for things like water filtration and air purification has been has been estimated at $93 billion. That is two and a half times as much as the combined economic value of the forestry, mining, oil and gas and hydroelectric industries in the boreal forest. This would represent eight per cent of Canada's entire GDP, and trees don't need a pension or healthcare.

And yet we keep grinding them up -- North America uses 60 per cent of the world's paper cups, 130 billion of them per year. Those cups require about 50 million trees and 33 billion gallons of water, which could sequester 9.3 million tonnes of CO2 and quench 550,000 drought-stricken citizens of the state of Georgia, without even asking them to lower their ridiculous consumption rate of 166 gallons per day.

Easy solutions

So. Please stop. There is really no need to argue further. Paper cups are stupid.

Let's dispense the obvious solution quickly: buy a travel mug. I bought this one in 1997 and engraved my phone number on it in case I forgot it somewhere. But, if for some reason the same species that landed on the moon, climbed Mount Everest and eradicated polio cannot remember to carry a travel mug, we might want to have a few back-up systems.

A good place to start would be a deposit system, which has been very effective for milk, beer and soda bottles -- there is even a café in Toronto selling coffee beans in returnable bottles. I would suggest that a few stores or chains agree to co-brand metal travel mugs so you can return your mug to Joe's Café or Caffe Roma, whichever is more convenient. A cargo bike can redistribute mugs as needed if they start piling up in one store.

And, a deposit system suddenly gives value to used cups, something we used to call garbage. In fact, deposits fund a whole industry of binners, or dumpster divers -- servicing those of us who are too lazy to sort recyclables from trash. Just put your mug down anywhere and one of these hard-working urban recyclers will be happy to return it for you. So if those mega-chains just can't imagine living without the brand value of their cups spilling out of garbage cans everywhere, well, that pretty clearly speaks to who is just greenwashing, and who is truly trying to be green.

Looking at a stranger's mug

On a smaller scale, a coffee shop could head to the thrift shop and buy up the ceramic mugs. When I owned a coffee shop, we bought only the mugs that had been personalized with photographs. You know, the kind that say To Grandma, with pictures of babies on them. Some were more exciting, though. My favourite pictured a brunette in white lingerie, holding a glass of champagne and reclining on a hotel bed. Creepily, the I Love You message was in kiddie-style crayon writing.

Armed with these cheap mugs, the café can just give them away for customers to sip and stroll their way up the street. If a dozen metal, newspaper-style boxes were placed six blocks away, in a circle around the café, customers would come across a handy box to put their cup in just as their coffee was finished. Along roll the cargo bikes again, to whisk the cups back for washing.

Even as we transition to systems of deposits and reuse, let's remember to slow down and savour. Do you think the English are so passionate about a cup of steeped leaves, or is it the break, the time to think and talk and reflect, that they love?

So instead of throwing away our cups, let's throw away the smell of bleached paper and the cuts from sharp plastic lids. Once again, it turns out that living sustainably is actually more joyful -- not just better for the world, but better for us.

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