Grab your coffee and settle in for some eye-opening facts. There’s a floating ...
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.
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.
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.
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.