A penny for your cups

UCLA should charge for its coffee cups. So should everyone else

At UCLA, coffee cups make up a big chunk of our student litter. They can be found spilling out of trash cans, loitering at bus stops, and waiting patiently outside the library, half empty, for people who will never return.

Coffee cups here are basically free. Campus cafes give one away with every coffee purchase, and two if the coffee is too hot. Besides the dollar-costs of gathering them up and throwing them out, there are real environmental costs that come with having our coffee in an object destined for the dump — for example, making 75 paper coffee cups emits as much CO2 as burning a gallon of gas. More on that further down.

To our credit, UCLA is at least somewhat aware of the impact paper coffee cups have, and has taken one small step towards curbing the use of them; in 2014 the campus cafes launched a discount program for students who take away their coffee in a reusable cup, giving a small discount to students who bring their own mugs, and a larger discount to students who buy a particular branded mug.

It’s unclear whether more people bring their own mugs due to the new discounts (there is no before/after data. And some bring their mugs anyway, discount or not.) In any case it’s rare to see. One reason for this is that relatively few people know about the program. UCLA hasn’t invested too much in advertising it — it doesn’t even have a webpage.

But there’s another likely reason: people don’t respond as well to discounts as they do to penalties. Better than giving a small discount, we should start explicitly charging for the disposable cups — even if it’s just symbolic — like we currently do in LA for disposable grocery bags. This is idea is based on the effect of “loss aversion” and is the basis of this article.

A dilemma, size grande

It’s easy to think that the environmental impact of a coffee cup is limited to its presence in a landfill. One of the goals of the Zero Waste Taskforce, of which I am a member, is to divert these coffee cups from landfills to compost piles, as if this solves the waste problem.

But the real problem occurs before the cup is even filled with coffee. The waste comes from processing the resources that go into making the cup. These resources are mainly wood pulp (trees) and petroleum. Petroleum in particular is used at every point of the process, all the way from cutting the trees down to shipping the finished product. Although UCLA’s cups are made entirely of paper, it’s worth noting that coffee cups are generally manufactured with a thin film of polyethylene plastic which makes them challenging to recycle, and that they come from virgin wood due to FDA restrictions.

Litter goes a long way

Cups aren’t free in any sense of the word. Of course the cost of the cup is built into the price of the coffee it comes with. But there are other costs, like the cost of sending these cups to landfill, that are easy to overlook; not only do you pay for your own disposable cup, you pay for the disposal of those from everyone else around you.

We (Americans) pay about $100 million per year to bury our disposable cups (calculated with $60/per ton, 400m cups per day, 10g per cup.)

This just includes the cups that end up in the landfill, and doesn’t account for cleaning up all the cups that don’t make it there. This litter may sound like a little problem, but it has the price tag of a big one. Here are some sobering statistics on how much California spends cleaning it all up:

  • California will spend $72 million per year on to collect and dispose of disposable cups and bags, according to The Earth Resource Foundation [note: check reliability of source]
  • California communities spend $428 million collecting trash from rivers, lakes, and coasts, according to The NRDC.
  • Mayor Garcetti, in April 2015, approved $9.1 million of additional spending to more than pentuple the number of trash cans in Los Angeles.

Given the diffuse nature of urban litter, no one knows precisely what fraction of it is coffee cups. Yet even if they make up a small fraction of the total they can still end up costing more than you may think.

A fair trade

When it comes to paper cups, the carbon footprint, the cost of disposal, and the hairy issue of litter all make them a bad deal. We ought to discourage everyone from using them in any way we can. Stopping short of an outright ban, it’s fair to ask that we at least pay for the cups we use.

As far as waste-reduction measures go, having consumers explicitly pay to throw-away —  like we do for grocery bags in LA — is a fair one, especially if the price of the coffee drops commensurately.

Expressed purely in terms of cost, this plan is roughly same as the discount plan, in that consumers pay the same amount for a coffee plus cup, and less if they bring their own — it’s just a different way of framing the costs. For example, if a coffee and cup costs$2.00, under the new model it would cost $1.90 and the cup would cost 10 cents.

We shouldn’t underestimate the dramatic change such a trick can bring about.

As part of her PhD thesis, Tatiana Homonoff showed that the number of customers buying a disposable bag dropped by about half in cities that implemented a small bag tax; it dropped by only 2% in cities which offered an equivalent discount. Even more interestingly, coupling a discount with a tax had the same effect as the same tax alone.

The strong effects of the tax were seen in Wales, which had at least a 75% reduction in single-use bags; in Ireland, which achieved a 96% reduction; and in US cities like Seattle and Los Angeles. No one has yet studied the effect of a cup tax, but cups and bags are similar enough that the idea is easy to imagine.

The conclusion to take away from this is that consumers are generally more sensitive to losing 10 cents than they are to getting a 10-cent discount. This concept is generally called “loss aversion” and has a sound basis in behavioral economics. Loss aversion is believed to be the reason that disposable bag taxes, which are generally only 5-10 cents, are so effective.

Like reusable bags, mugs are easy to keep around, especially on a campus like UCLA. Most students carry around backpacks or purses with ample room for a mug, and for faculty with offices, keeping one handy is even easier.

Life cycle assessments

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a cradle-to-grave model of a product’s environmental impact, typically given in terms of the energy required to make and use it. Depending on the exact model used by the LCA, new ceramic mugs are given a “break even” point with paper cups at somewhere between 20 to 40 uses.

Besides the fact that this simple energy-cost model doesn’t account for non-energy costs (like litter cleanup and pollution), using an LCA to justify the use of paper cups misses a couple of major points. First, nearly everyone has a cup or mug lying around already, but if they don’t it’s easy enough to find one. Second, for a regular coffee drinker, forty uses can occur in as little as a month.

Brewing something dark

Starbucks, the world’s largest and most influential coffee chain, has been aware of the impact of its disposable cups as early as 2000. (It gets the most attention not because it is the worst, but because it’s the biggest target.) Over the last decade Starbucks has stayed remarkably consistent with its approach to environmental stewardship, largely by fixing its cups to cut down on greenhouse gases, but has never gone as far as implementing a program with real teeth. The most they have done this far is offer a small incentive to customers who bring their own mugs. Here’s a clip from their sustainability page:

A lot of our customers are also working to reduce their own environmental impact even as we are. To help them help us, we offer a 10-cent discount in the company operated stores to encourage customers to use their own reusable mugs or tumblers for their beverages. Customers staying in a store can also request that their beverages be served in a ceramic mug where available. Every paper cup saved helps keep our forests intact.

From the above copy, you might never guess that Starbucks generates 4 billion cups per year, of which about 399 out of 400 are thrown away.

That’s worth thinking about. No matter how sustainable the cups may be, the existing recycling infrastructure is what ultimately determines where they end up. Like many cities, Vancouver is unable to recycle Starbucks cups at all (due to the plastic liner), so it sends them to the dump. The issue of disposal has become so bad that they are considering banning the cups entirely.

It could even be that marketing the cups as “green” has a negative spillover effect, letting customers feel like they’ve done the right thing by taking a recyclable/biodegradable/compostable cup over a disposable one. Peter Senge, MIT professor of management, calls this the “happy cup” effect. It doesn’t matter how “green” your cup is if it ends up in a landfill.

The Environmental Defense Fund formed a task force with Starbucks in 2000 and found that they could save up to $6000 per year per store by serving their “for here” orders in reusable mugs. For unclear reasons they never did.

The company has also dramatically lowered its goal of having reusable mugs account for 25% of all sales by 2015, down to 5%. In 2016 the actual number hovers around 2%, despite a number of strategies to boost the number, including inventing a cheap reusable mug and giving discounts for refilling it (or any other one that you bring in.) So to all the people who say that discounts work, look at Starbucks, who’s thrown millions of dollars at the problem and hasn’t gotten the number of cup-bringers to budge.

Marc Gunther, a business journalist and environmentalist, asked Starbucks in 2012 if they would consider switching away from their discount model and exploiting the concept of loss aversion (the full article can be found here.) I encourage you to read the whole article, I want to reproduce a particular portion here, because it paints a realistic picture of a company that truly wishes it could change, but can’t:

I moderated a panel about food packaging yesterday with Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks, at Cooking for Solutions, a great conference about food and sustainability run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I asked him why the company didn’t replace its small discount for mugs with a small charge for cups, without changing the actual prices. After all, the company doesn’t like to see images like this [Starbucks cups in the trash], which some call “branded trash.”

Jim told me (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Starbucks wanted to protect its  relationships of trust with its customers, and it didn’t want to “penalize” them for not bringing a mug. Some customers also might misinterpret a 10-cent charge for cup as a price increase, even if the coffee price dropped at the same time.

“It comes down to the relationship that we’ve built with our customers over the past 40 years,” Jim said. The company does not want to suggest to its customers that there’s something wrong with their daily habit of drinking a beverage in a disposable paper cup–even though there is, kinda, sorta, something wrong.

UCLA has to opportunity to be the first large institution in the world to try splitting the purchases of cups and coffee. It’s hardly controversial. If the model works, and consumers don’t mind, both of which are likely, then companies like Starbucks may follow suit, multiplying the positive effect. And if companies don’t volunteer to make the change, having positive evidence that the change works could lead to legislation that makes it compulsory.

A fresh shot

One cafe in Dunedin, New Zealand, decided in April 2016 to do away with disposable cups altogether. They’ve been replaced by ceramic mugs sourced from a nearby thrift store. Customers are allowed to keep the mugs, or return them if they like; for the store, each mug is about as expensive as a paper cup. The executive chef of the cafe, Mark Lane, said

“We just thought, why have them? We wanted people to take some time out with coffee … take some time out of the office and connect with people.”

The cafe thought there may be an initial downtick in sales, but Lane says on the contrary “the feedback has been all positive.”

Let’s take some initiative and make a change — disposable cups are like mosquitos; no one will care when they’re gone. Let’s do it to keep CO2 in the ground, to keep more trees planted, and to keep paper cups out of our landfills and out of our streets and rivers. Let’s get rid of the branded pollution that we’re so familiar with, and make it easier to find a trash can that isn’t full.

And let’s do it for the most important reason of all: coffee kind of tastes like shit when you drink it from paper.

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