An Early Resolution

coffee cup

Last night I wrote a rant against disposable coffee cups, aka to-go cups. I didn’t post it this morning because I didn’t feel good about it. It was too negative, and worse, I was projecting. My rant went into some detail about the fraudulent idea of “disposability”, and how this idea degraded both our environment and our culture.

And this is true. A to-go cup is not particularly recyclable, despite its pretenses. Many (most?) communities don’t find it worthwhile to recycle dirty paper cups. And by culture, I mean that is far more civil, not to mention communal, to share beverages from a common pot. To sit together and drink, instead of run and gulp alone. I said that is important to share a communal drink, leaving aside your own preferences for this happy wholeness and communality– i.e. your choices comes down to “cream or sugar?” rather than a whole menu blackboard full of incremental and ultimately insignificant customization options. I find that in the case of coffee, individualism is a lonely business.

At any rate, I realized I was spending too much time on my high horse (her name is Princess and she has a pink mane) when I am a frequent enough user of disposable cups. True, I don’t work in the office, so I’m not lining up at Starbuck’s twice a day, and I often carry a travel mug, but I don’t say no to hot beverages when I’m at meetings and gatherings, or when I’m on the road, and these almost always come in disposable cups.

If I try to imagine how many disposable cups I’ve used in my life–say the earth (justly) vomited them all back at my feet–how high would the pile be? As big as my house?

So I’m making a resolution. Instead of berating others, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on to-go cups–all disposable cups for both hot and cold drinks, actually, because why not? I banned plastic water bottles from my life long ago. Why it took so long for me to eschew the cups, I don’t know. I guess I was always able to mutter, “Well, at least they’re paper.” Denial is a beautiful thing! But it’s time to face facts. They’re just as bad as the bottles.

Thus the resolution: no more disposable cups personally, and I also vow to help groups/organizations I belong to wean themselves from disposables, even if that means me doing a lot of dishes in random bathroom sinks. Oh yes, I’m going to be that person.

One hopeful note: in researching I discovered that use of personal mugs at Starbucks  is up by 22% in one year:

In 2013 customers brought their own tumblers into our stores 46.9 million times, up from 35.8 million in 2012, saving more than 1.4 million pounds of paper from landfills. As more customers brought in their personal tumblers over the previous year, the percentage of customers choosing reusable mugs saw a 22% increase over the prior year from 1.5% to 1.84%.  (Starbucks blog)

Okay, so it’s not even 2% of their customers, but those few kept 1.4 million pounds of paper from the landfill, and that’s significant. Individual choices do matter.

A few more thoughts:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 4.26.07 PM

To-go cups c. 1963, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. See? Not so hard.

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Bitter intelligence agents share a nice pot of tea. Also from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I just watched it, so I noticed the cups.)


A Tea Lady in Britain keeps the war workers well-caffeinated, without the use of disposables.

coffee urn

This is so common, and yet so very unappealing. The plastic stir sticks! The creamers! Seriously, does anyone approach this situation with any more enthusiasm than you would a port-a-potty when you really have to go? Meaning, it’s there to fulfill a basic need, not to give anyone joy. Photo credit Colin Harris


Guess how old this coffee mug is. Guess. This mug was made in China 4000 to 4500 years ago. Humans have appreciated a good brew in a good mug for a long time. Let’s get back to that.

Leave a comment


  1. Yours is the first rant I have heard. Bravo! I look at every function I go to and think, “How could this stuff be reused/recycled?” I try to only use a ceramic cup. Maybe I will put one in my car and take it with me. (Yes I do have travel mugs but a ‘real’ cup is so much nicer.) Guess that will be my New Year’s resolution. And stir sticks? Maybe we could think of some really cool way to carry our own. On a key chain? In a container like those personal tooth picks? Hum…I just have to figure out how to not use the creamer now.
    Thoughtful post though. Something to think about. And glad YOU said something. I’ve never dared as people think I am too opinionated as it is. I’m sure they would just shake their heads and roll their eyes.

    • One of the things I said in my rant was that I’d noticed the use of disposable cups by businesses/organizations which claimed to be green. It’s like they’re invisible. Like people couldn’t imagine any other possibility.

      I like the stir stick key chain. I just don’t stir, usually, or if I must I use a pen!

      And regarding creamer–I like cream too. I envision the day when you’re served coffee in a more humane manner, so someone will provide a pitcher of cream for you, instead of one of those teeny sealed cups. Or worse, the powdered stuff. Oh humanity!!!

    • I just thought of are probably too young to remember, but they used to have very small ceramic pitchers for the cream until people started stealing them. Then they went to those metal ones that some restaurants still use. They were harder for people to steal. A few restaurants still give you maple syrup in small containers and I often wonder if people still steal those. (I did waitress work when I was young.) Wouldn’t it be great to just have pitchers of REAL cream for our coffee that would be served in a ceramic mug that kept it hot? Maybe companies parties and meetings should make everyone bring their own cup. Parties would have ‘BYOC’ at the bottom of the invitation! LOL

    • When I want to mix my cream and hot coffee, I put the cream in the cup first, then pour the coffee from the highest height I possibly can (that doesn’t then cause splashing). Mixes everything right up, with no little nasty stir stick required!
      That doesn’t necessarily work with tea that you need to brew though. I’d definitely take a reusable/travel stir stick for that.

      And thank you Mrs. Homegrown for the pictures. The disposable cup/plastic creamer cups/plastic stir straw combination that infests so many company offices is unsightly as well as wasteful. I’ve been in those week long conventions and dolefully watched the trash cans fill with all manner of one time use items (I was using them myself). It’s soul killing to watch and realize this happens all over every day. The POUNDS of one time use convenient items I (we) throw out is so unnecessary if we were willing to bring our own mugs, or utensils, or even cloth napkins. But have I had the courage to do these things while attending one of the big conferences? No. I confess I haven’t had the guts to do anything than tag along with the rest of the sheeple in the herd 🙁

    • I know, I know! Don’t feel bad–we’ve all been there. At conferences I find myself hovering around the coffee station simply because I’m bored, or nervous, and am looking for something to do. Sometimes I have my own cup, sometimes I don’t. It can be hard to remember one when you’re really busy or traveling or thinking about other things, like a presentation you have to give. Sometimes we just have to let the guilt go.

    • I should say here that my company doesn’t have the disposable cup buffet in the picture, but vending machines and such abound. I bring in what I need (lunches, utensils, cups, etc) and mostly don’t have to use disposables when I’m at work. Except for the days I forgot to put the damn fork in the lunch bag. Grrr
      2) When trying to reuse things at the conference and others discover it (despite my efforts to be ninja like) most give me a line aobut how unhygienic it is. Like ewwww germs!
      I will unscientifically postulate a theory that in order for reusable items to gain more use/popularity in public spaces, the culture is going to have to embrace the fact that reusable doesn’t necessarily equal unsanitary, BUT in order to make those reusable items sanitary, the public will have to put in the work personally or pay for the work to be done of cleaning up the items for use again.

    • I’m so glad I got my boss to buy Asko dishwashers when we renovated our office kitchens.

      They’re expensive, but they actually get the job done with very little water or energy.

      But try convincing a bunch of old-time greenies that it’s more efficient to use a dishwasher than to hand wash. Not that I can really call anyone who leaves the water running like that a greenie.

      I heartily agree about the weird assumption that only disposable items can be clean. Reusable grocery bags, etc. are all deeply suspected of being Ebola factories.

      To these people, I remand the notion of the clothes washing machine.

  2. As a regular reader of this blog, I’ve always figured you two were above criticism when it came to recycling, reusing and reducing.

    Now that I know you’re buying from Starbucks, McDonald’s, or godforbid, coffee from some Chinese restaurant in a styrofoam cup…

    I’m almost sickened. I looked up to you two to point the way to a greener future.

    I have a Pyrex/Corning No Leak Lid value pack I got from a yard sale, and every time I stop by my neighborhood take-out, I have them fill up my order in my handy Pyrex container–I bring my largest container and they always attempt to fill to the brim.

    So, that’s basically how I roll, I figured you two rolled similarly.

    Maybe you’re penchant for to-go cups stems from the lack of affection and/or enthusiasm for coffee, in general.

    You have to love coffee enough to want to drink a perfect cup every time. And the only way to guarantee this is to brew your own coffee each time.

    I have lots of implements dedicated to this pursuit, but my to-go option (and I bike to work) for more than 2 yrs now is the Aeropress coffee maker.

    I get to the office, get all my stuff set and I make coffee, takes a couple of minutes. Pour my coffee to my mug, wash all the things, and get to work. Simple, no waste, no drama, but most importantly I get a little Zen tea ritual to start my day.

    C’mon, get your S together. To-go cups should’ve been a no, no like 10 yrs a go. You’re playing catch-up here.

  3. I actually worked for a company that kicked off their ‘green’ awareness campaign by giving everybody a pint beer glass at the kick off party and told them to keep it if they ever hope to enjoy beer at work again (in a partying capacity, which they did often; not during actual work hours).

    Good times, good times……

  4. I wish I could say I never use disposable cups, but sometimes you just can’t plan for life. I do try to avoid them if possible, and if I’m helping at a community event where they use semi-disposable cutlery and crockery, I’m the one washing it up to use next time.

    I like this poster, which applies to cups too: I’d like to take up guerilla flyposting (tautologous?) in village halls, church kitchens, school staff rooms…

    • This is the thing. It’s impossible to be perfect. I do try already, but I guess by this resolution I’m saying I give myself no more free passes. I’m not looking forward to having to carry a cup at all times, because I like to travel light. This is why I want to change the world around me instead! In other words, society should be sane again, so we don’t have to carry cups around, or go without.

  5. Maybe I’ll do a little rant for you. Not only about the paper/plastic/styrofoam cups but this who notion that we have to buy out tea/coffee at a shop.
    What on earth is wrong with making your beverage at work, most have a kitchen on the premises or bringing your own from home in a thermos. I always did this at first because of the cost…I can’t believe the money people spend just on coffee.
    But I’ve always hated drinking tea out of those styrofoam cups it makes it taste awful, so whenever possible I brought my own mug.
    Recently I was astounded to see a neighbour bring home a tray of coffees…to his house. I’m obviously so far out of the loop I live in a land without string:)

    As I get older I don’t care as much what people think of my actions so now I don’t just bring a mug I bring a plate,cutlery and a napkin, and any waste I do cause like when they have real cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin I bring the napkin home to use.
    I have found the best way to deal with the negative comments is with humour. The last time one of my companions looked at my ceramic plate and shook his head, I told him I was bringing him one next time since he was such a nice guy:)

    I’m don’t do this to show how grand I am but because it actually hurts me to see all this waste, and my only other solution would be to stay home forever


    • Bravo! I shall now also take my own plate to the various potlucks! Surprising that they supply the utensils that they put in the kitchen dishwasher but continue to use the throw-away everything else. And maybe my contribution will include a container of REAL cream! Thanks for the good ideas!

    • I’ve been to potlucks where folks are asked to bring their own plates, cups and cutlery. BYO…what? And I think that is a fantastic idea. I understand hosts not wanting to spend all night washing dishes, but this is so much a better option than stocking up on plastic. Besides, it’s just awful eating with plastic forks on slippery disposable plates.

  6. While I agree with you about many things, I don’t think that the pour-from-it filled creamer should make a comeback.

    You could make an arguement that we as a culture are too obsessed with cleanliness, and that might be true. However, having seen the nasty habits of many people, I would like to avoid consuming things that have come into contact with multitudes.

    I have personally seen people stick their fingers in, sip from, sneeze over, and otherwise contaminate open containers in places like supermarkets and buffets. I can’t imagine it being different in a coffee shop. I’ll keep the sealed creamers, thank you. They may well not be perfectly contaminant-free, but they’re much less likely to be so than an open cream pitcher sitting out somewhere.

    • The easy solution to that is to keep the cream in one of those insulated carafes that they use at most coffee shops already. Keeps the cream cold, too.

    • Erik will be pleased to see this vindication of the dishwasher!

      But I have to admit that if I wheedle some group I belong to into giving up disposables, and end up washing cups for them, I’ll hand wash if I have to. I get that dishwashers are more efficient, and there could be arguments made about resource use in disposables vs. water use in hand washing, but I’d argue for hand washing real cups because of the symbolism of the thing. Real cups say we’re a community. Real cups say we care.

      Nice points in the other article about the sustainability of coffee vs. tea, too!

    • When that comparison is made between hand-washing and dishwashing, is it based on someone constantly running the water when hand-washing, or based on someone filling two sink basins (wash water, rinse water)? My overall impression is that not many people know how to correctly hand-wash dishes – reminds me of people who brush their teeth while leaving the tap water running. I’ve seen the numbers thrown around, but never the data on which the numbers are based. Suspicious.

      I see the defense of the dishwasher pop up again and again, but it takes a lot of materials to manufacture a dishwasher, and dishwashers cost money, in addition to whatever utility a person gets out of one. Plus, the middlemen don’t make extra money when a person uses the simpler method instead.

  7. To comment on plastic stirrers: If you add your cream and sugar to the cup before the coffee, you eliminate the need to stir.

    • So true! I think you really only need the little plastic sticks to dissolve that horrid powdered creamer stuff, which no one should be using anyway. What an unpleasant little loop of non-necessity!

  8. Unfortunately To-Go cup culture complements the ‘rush and get places and need coffee to fuel my day’ mentality. It’s the caffeine version of fast food – do we need fast food? No. But it is convenient. Many people are either too lazy, don’t know how, or too busy to make their own coffee hence stopping by their starbucks. Here in Portland there are a ton of coffee kiosks where people can drive up and grab their cuppa joe to-go. However, if you stop in a coffee or tea shop any other time, many of the smaller stores do give you the beverage in a ceramic cup to enjoy at your leisure in the ambience of the cafe/shop. To me, this is what these stores are really for. A break from the routine, someone else makes the hot beverage for you, and you _sit and enjoy it_ like you’re supposed to! Plus, if you make your coffee at home, you have the added bonus of composting the grounds or using them as a medium for growing mushrooms.. 🙂

    As for disposable cups in office culture, this is really dependent on whoever is managing the drinks and also the people who work there. Disposable coffee fare is cheap – A fresh carafe of cream of half and half might not have enough people going through it, and then they have to clean it, make sure the cream hasn’t spoiled, etc. Again, the convenience monster steps in and offers its wares. However, nobody needs to accept nor volunteer to be a part of that scene. Bring your own mug, keep a little carton of cream in the company fridge (offer it to your workmates). Keep a sugar jar on the desk.

    Also, has anyone noticed those disposable cups kind of cause a layer of scum in the beverage? I imagine it’s the wax melting off or something.

    • “To-Go cup culture complements the ‘rush and get places and need coffee to fuel my day’ mentality” Exactly! That is one of the things which bothers me so much. It’s a huge burden on the environment, yet has no upside to counterbalance the cost. It just makes people more isolated and frazzled. It makes no sense.

    • I bought a stroller for my daughter that was badly reviewed in the US because it didn’t have cup holders. Why? It’s made in Italy, where they don’t carry their drinks everywhere – you stop in the bar, have a cup of coffee while chatting with neighbors or the barista, and then move on when you are done. A much better way to do things, if you ask me!

    • Absolutely. Sit down! Be civilized.

      Our little car has 6 cup holders. It doesn’t even seat six people. I guess we need multiple drink options at hand at all times.

  9. Ahh, the spy who came in from the cold. I think we need to have a coffee shop called that. Maybe all our drinks can come from John Le Carre novels?

    Third Man brew ( maybe not JLC )
    Tinkor Tailor Tea
    Smiley’s Soup
    Looking Glass Latte


  10. I am inspired! I’m going to get some kind of mason jar lid for my occasional hot drinks on the go. For me these little steps help me keep the ball rolling in the right direction. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, not make any changes and become desensitized to all the waste. Thanks for another nudge in the right direction! You guys put out great stuff.

  11. my sister has almost always a cup in her bag ; it’s less easy when you’re in a town, without a car and using the underground, to fill your bag with heavy things (because I don’t like plastic)
    when I go to the library I take my hot drink with me (being now in a very small place, no hot drinks available there)
    I often use the same large bowl I bought in Africa for my evening salad several days
    I feel very encouraged to see people acting that way all around the world ; let’s remember somewhere, people are obliged to act with economy, they jut don’t have another way to do
    thank you for that interesting website !

  12. Insulated stainless steel mugs with tight-fitting lids are so superior to any other option that I’m not really sure why people keep inflicting paper cups on themselves.

    For tea drinkers, it is impossible to make a properly brewed cup in a paper cup.

    Like reusable grocery bags, it does require you to remember to bring it with you. Given that people seem to haul around enormous bags with computers and ever other conceivable object in them, a lightweight cup doesn’t seem onerous.

    My company has, multiple times, given each employee a reusable mug. Still we go through the paper ones by the thousands. Whenever I see someone using one, I say, “Mmm… dioxins.” Sometimes they’ll reach for a reusable one instead.

  13. I live in Portland, Oregon…where there is supposedly traces of caffeine in our tap water, there is such an abundance of roasters and coffee shops.
    And that being said ever since I moved here, over 3 years ago, I am shocked by how many people DO NOT use reusable cups. I feel like an outsider honestly sometimes when I pull out my own cup. Wonderful! I prefer the outside. But this is just to say for a place that is so “progressive” I think some of the ideals might be a little as* backwards.
    I think places should ask more often, “Is this for here?” so that the beverage can be served that way. I rarely if ever hear that asked. Also, I have noticed that some places will charge you if you need a bag for your groceries, thus encouraging bringing your own, or alas you can juggle all your items out the door, as well as an extra charge for plastic containers for bulk items (thank you co-ops)…so, maybe if there was an extra charge for the disposable cup charge, people would think twice.
    As for enjoying a beverage out at a coffee shop, we are supporting local businesses and employment (there are plenty of good options to Starbucks out there) and sometimes it’s just a good spot to hang out, catch up, meet up, and hell, I find it to be a treat. Moderation and appreciation, always, of course.

    Your posts are much appreciated, worthwhile reads. And I admire you for doing it all in Los Angeles, my hometown.

    I’m further curious what sort of ideas you have for helping groups and organizations wean themselves off disposables. I’d love to start that up here.

    • Thanks, Belle!

      As far as weaning groups goes, that is something I’m going to have to figure out as I go, so I have nothing solid to say yet. I’ll send reports from the front!

      One thing I wanted to share with you though, is a great system I saw on Vashon Island (off Seattle). Some of the neighbors set up a system for sharing a communal store of party ware, so that no one had to buy plastic, or pay to rent stuff, if they threw a big party or had a big meeting or something.

      Someone donated a shed on their land for storage, and inside it was packed with stacks of dishes and towers of coffee cups and piles of silverware, big trays and bowls and basically everything you’d need. It was totally awesome. I should probably write this up as a post, just because it was such a good idea. Hmm. Anyway, I believe it was free, and run on an honor system. Borrowers came and picked up what they needed and were responsible for returning the stuff clean. I think the dishes were donated and collected from thrift stores.

  14. 1) I agree with a previous commenter about stainless-steel mugs. I carry one with a fully-closing lid and caribiner handle because it is the most convenient style I’ve found (clips to a purse strap and doesn’t leak). Like this one, but they’re hard to find and may take a lot of shopping around:

    2) Consider your good friend the Mason Jar as a mug alternative. The four-ounce and eight-ounce sizes make for fun party cups. People are now making lids that will turn mason jars into mugs.

    3) Did coffee stir-sticks start out as SPOONS? A small coffee spoon fits conveniently inside of a travel mug.

    4) I attended a conference at the Portland Convention Center two years ago that had ~10,000 attendees, but managed to provide ceramic mugs for the coffee service during the breaks. Clearly, it can be done.

    • That’s one fine mug! I have a steel mug, but it doesn’t have a lid. I’m definitely in the market for an upgrade.

      Here at home we serve guests drinks in mason jars when we run out of a glasses. I don’t think we could ever run out of jars.

      It warms my heart to hear about that conference. Imagine all the waste saved!

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