There is, within me, a person who is very unlike my usual self. I enjoy nature, and try to be eco-conscious, but I do drive my car to work each day, because that 15 minute drive up the highway would take over an hour and a half each way by bus, and I have better things to do with my time. Inside my generally laid-back self there is an angry environmentalist with a chip on her shoulder, and a whole lot of self-restraint.
I don’t drink coffee… no high and mighty morals or ideals to this statement, I just don’t like the taste. And, seeing as how it isn’t all that healthy for you, I see no reason to acquire the taste – I get enough caffeine out of the rest of the things I ingest. And, I really don’t care if you do drink it or not. What bothers me (and makes my A.E. want to sharpen her machete and go mutilate the nearest Tim Hortons) is the paraphenelia of most urban coffee drinkers. It isn’t even really the paraphenelia… it’s what you do with it. Hm, that does seem vague. Coffee Mugs. Not the reusable ones, of course – people who own and use them, pat yourselves on the back – what I have an issue with is the paper cups. The paper cups aren’t limited to coffee drinkers, either – if you are using a paper cup, I have issue with what you might do with it.
The term ‘paper cup’ seems to give people the impression that it must be recyclable, which, in turn, leads people to the greater misconception that it is, like a banana peel, compostable. And, like a banana peel or apple core, something you can literally toss in the bushes when you are done with it.
Depending on the coffee shop you go to, the area in which you live (different types of recycling facilities) and the type of cup they use, the paper cup you have just bought, full of the beverage of your choice, might be compostable, or recyclable, or just plain garbage (a lot of places can’t recycle the cups that have a waxy or plastic type lining that lets you keep your beverage in it for a long time without leaks). Fine, good, throw it in the appropriate receptacle once it is empty. My A.E. would prefer it if you used a multiple-use type mug, but I don’t always do it either – sometimes it is hard to predict when I might feel a sudden craving for hot chocolate or whatever, and I don’t always want to carry a mug around with me.
The issue I have with these cups goes back to the fact that people treat them the same way I might treat an apple core.
Scene 1 – the side of the highway through Lake Superior Provincial Park. While doing work that takes me near the highway, I could barely take two steps without running into a tim-hortons cup, or, more rarely, cups from other brands. Though, to be fair, there aren’t that many varieties of coffee shop in that area, so it makes sense that most of the cups are from the brand most likely to be available. There is other stuff that people have felt ought to be expelled from the vehicle via window (and since it is only staff that spend any time walking along the highway, the detritus is from cars), but cups are the most common. The verge of highways is not a hospitable site – it would not be the ideal composting location at the best of times, but, when the item left there is paper coated with wax, that object is going to be sitting there getting slowly bleached by the sun for a very very long time. Coffee cups are not compostable like vegetation, and they could not possibly be impacting your personal comfort in the car so much that you couldn’t wait until the next parking-lot (because nearly all the parking lots in provincial parks have regularly emptied garbage bins) or rest-stop or gas-station to get rid of them.
Situation two – hiking along the shore of Lake Superior, deep inside Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, doing waterfront cleanup. A quick bit of information on Lake Superior – it is the biggest of the Great Lakes, and deep enough that, if it were emptied, then filled with the water of the rest of the lakes, they could not fill it. It is so big that the weather boats can experience on it can be terrible – rough water can come up so quickly that you might find yourself in a canoe, half-way home from a perfectly blue-sky day of paddling, and desperate to get to shore before you get tipped. And yet, old coffee cups (and yes, mostly Timmy’s) alone could have filled at least one full large garbage bag, as we walked about 8 km of inhospitable and nearly inaccessible shoreline. With a beach consisting of smooth rocks the size of your fist or foot, with large rocks scattered sometimes just under the surface of the water, it isn’t an easy or fun hike, and it wouldn’t be somewhere I’d want to pull into in a boat. All the garbage we found there was washed ashore after having found its way into Lake Superior. And there, in the middle of nowhere, we found that many paper cups. Further proof that just chucking it anywhere will not ensure that your coffee cup will decompose – not even leaving it in water for however long it took to travel to a deserted stretch of coastline will break it down even enough that it becomes unrecognisable for what it is.
Situation three– walking through my neighbourhood. I do, since acquiring the companionship of Dog, walk an awful lot more than I used to. Also, without as much purpose to my walking, I look around a fair bit more than I used to, which is great, really gives me new appreciation for the area. Because of Dog, I also have to pay a great deal more attention to the less pleasant things in my neighbourhood – because he will try to eat it if it is even slightly interesting. The sheer number of coffee cups that have been discarded onto peoples’ lawns, the sidewalk, and the road in general, is staggering. Some of them aren’t even empty! They are treated like vegetable matter – for some strange reason, coffee cups don’t seem to fall into the ‘put it in the garbage when I get home’ category, and, instead, have been bundled in with apple cores and banana peels. Much as I don’t like it when my dog picks up a blackened and gross old banana peel (try chucking it into a bush, not just on the sidewalk, come on now!), I see those much less often than coffee cups. Probably because the banana peel breaks down over time – the coffee cup just sits there, getting flattened or faded slightly, for the entire winter. Coffee cups are probably one of the least awful things my dog has picked up (old flat dead rat, anyone?), but they are the thing he most often picks up, sometimes with little frozen pucks of coffee still in them (not good for him at all!), sometimes with the (often) recyclable lid still on, and, in general, making a mess of the neighbourhood. This is one of the easiest things to shove into a winter-coat pocket, or into an outside pocket of a bag. It can be folded down and flattened, and, if you’re done with the beverage inside, you can dump it out on the grass, to avoid leakage into your pocket after folding. It is lightweight and easily disposed of. There are garbage and recycling bins at every street corner on the main street the coffee bearer might be headed to on their way out of the neighbourhood, and garbage cans sitting strategically outside in the school yard, in the parks, in front of apartment buildings, and, on garbage days, in front of every house in sight. Even if it isn’t garbage day, there are still garbage bins out front, or clearly visible just near the front of a person’s house (and I bet they’d rather you used their bin than their lawn). If I can carry a bag of Dog’s fecal matter long enough to find a garbage can, surely you can take your empty or half-empty coffee cup that same distance. I’m not even asking you to recycle – anything’s better than strewn-across-the-lawn.