Coffee Cups and Plastic Straws – How Convenience Clogs the Oceans

Our craze for convenient coffee could be killing the ocean

Coffee Cups and Plastic Straws – How Convenience Clogs the Oceans

Grab your coffee and settle in for some eye-opening facts. There’s a floating island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – and it’s only one of at least four similar trash islands. Globally, we dump the equivalent of a full garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every single minute of every single day. Since the discovery of plastic, we’ve produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic — and we produce another 300 million tons every year. And while much of the plastic produced today is recyclable, most of it isn’t recycled — we recycle less than 10 percent of the total amount of plastic used every year. The rest of it ends up in landfills or, increasingly, in the ocean.

What’s Plastic in the Ocean Got to Do with Coffee?

If you’re wondering what all that has to do with coffee, here are a few hints: takeout coffee and K-cups (and all their derivatives). An awful lot of that plastic trash stream is generated by our addiction to convenient coffee. Take K-cups and other single serve coffee machines that use plastic in their packaging. As of 2015, the amount of K-cups thrown away could encircle the planet 10 times. And while parts of the little cup are recyclable, it’s not an easy process. Most end up in the trash, and some of that plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

But it doesn’t end with single-serve coffee makers. Our love of convenient coffee also includes those daily coffee takeout runs, with coffee handed out in plastic and polystyrene cups, or in paper cups — which are coated with a thin layer of plastic, making them non-recyclable. Add in the plastic lids, the little plastic cups of creamer, the plastic stirrers — and the plastic straws handed out with your iced coffee or blended coffee drink — and it all adds up to millions of pounds of plastic waste that’s directly attributable to coffee consumption.

What Plastic Coffee Trash Does to Marine Life

So okay, to be fair, it’s not just plastic coffee trash — it’s all plastic trash. We’ve gotten used to seeing pictures of sea turtles trapped by those plastic six-pack rings, or birds with their beaks clamped shut by similar things. That’s just a tiny extent of the real problem, though. Biologists have cut open whales that washed up on the beach and found their stomachs and digestive system so crammed with plastic grocery bags and the like that they have no room for food. Their systems aren’t designed to break down plastic, after all. Scientists have also discovered that we can’t even see a lot of the plastic in the ocean. While plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it can be degraded by sun and water, breaking down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. Those microscopic bits of plastic are often consumed by fish and other marine animals. Like the whales, their systems aren’t designed to digest plastic, either. Instead, it clogs their digestive systems and often starves them to death. And if you’re not the type to care about a few fish dying, there’s growing evidence that those tiny bits of plastic — often contaminated with the toxins they attract — are finding their way to our plates through the fish and seafood we consume. Scientists predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish, and that even earlier than that, there won’t be a fish in the sea that doesn’t have plastic in its system.

Five Ways to Reduce Plastic Coffee Waste

Let me start by acknowledging that the impact of individual actions is relatively small, even if they’re undertaken by hundreds of thousands of people. And the plastic pollution problem isn’t likely to go away on its own — plastic is just too profitable and too useful for humans to stop using it altogether. International policy decisions and corporate actions will have the largest effect on cleaning up the plastic in our oceans. That said, though, individuals CAN have an impact, especially if they act in large enough numbers. Here are five ways that you personally can reduce the amount of plastic coffee waste that makes its way into oceans and landfills.

  1. Switch to reusable single-serve filters instead of using pre-filled capsules. There are reusable versions available for nearly every type of single serve coffee machine. There are even machines that include a reusable single serve filter.
  2. Get your takeout coffee in a reusable travel mug — and campaign your favorite coffee shops to allow servers to fill them. It’s a little less convenient than just taking that plastic or polystyrene cup — you have to wash out the cup, for example — but it makes a difference. Some corporate coffee chains sell refillable mugs — and then instruct their servers not to fill them out of fear of lawsuits if someone gets sick after drinking from an unwashed travel mug. They listen to consumers, though, so if that happens to you, make your voice heard.
  3. Say no to plastic straws and stirrers. If you really must have your coffee stirred, campaign your favorite convenience coffee shop to switch to wooden stirrers or invest in a self-stirring travel mug. Many travel mugs and water bottles — which work just fine for iced coffee — come with their own reusable straw. You can also indulge yourself in a reusable metal straw.
  4. Learn more about local efforts to clean up and/or prevent plastic waste — and volunteer to help. Many coastal communities have regular beach cleanups for which you can volunteer, and more and more communities are instituted bans on single-use plastics like coffee cups, grocery bags and plastic straws.
  5. Ask your local coffee shop to switch to biodegradable or compostable takeaway cups and lids. It’s a growing market, and there are more and more choices available at prices comparable to plastic and polystyrene versions.


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