ReCup Campaign Imagines The End Of The Disposable Coffee Cup

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Is convenience a good enough reason to trash the Earth? Every year for the sake of convenience, 600 billion disposable drinking cups are manufactured and thrown away worldwide. It shouldn’t take more than the brain power of a garden slug to realize that is insane. For the sake of convenience we should destroy our environment? Isn’t it time for human beings to grow up and start acting like adults instead of two year olds?

The single use coffee cup is a prime example of how social norms conflict with sustainability. Back when America was great, people drank coffee at home, or at work, or at a restaurant. You drank a cup of coffee, then the cup was washed, dried, and used again. But as the automobile became the center of most people’s universe, to-go cups became all the rage. Coffee in the car. What a concept! The use of single use coffee cups exploded along with franchises like Starbucks and McDonalds, to name a few.

The problem with all those drinks containers is they require a thin coating of plastic in order to keep them from leaking. That plastic prevents them from being recyclable, so they just get thrown away to clog up our landfills and oceans. Starbucks and McDonalds are cooperating to find a better coffee cup, one that can be recycled. But entrepreneurs in Germany think they have the solution — a reusable coffee cup.

Customers pay a deposit to get one. They can get their deposit back at any of a thousand locations in the country. There’s even an app that shows places where the cup can be returned. It can be washed and reused dozens of times and when it reaches the end of its useful life, it is recyclable. The company is called ReCup and it has attracted interest from merchants in Munich, Berlin, Cologne, Ludwigsburg, Oldenburg, Rosenheim, and Wasserburg with more cities soon to follow.

In Munich, known for its Oktoberfest festivities, a similar model has been in place for decades. Drinkers pay a deposit for a reusable beer container. They also pay a deposit to get things like plates for their bratwurst and utensils to carve up their wiener schnitzel. Why wouldn’t the same thing work for coffee cups, Alex Gerstmeier, ReCup’s marketing manager asks NPR reporter Valerie Hamilton?

ReCup Munich
Credit: AWM

“I think maybe it’s an American way of life, which has spilled over to Germany or to Europe, and it’s not the best way of American life,” says Guenther Langer, director of the Munich’s waste and recycling authority AWM. The authority had positioned an enormous 10 foot high coffee cup in the downtown area to educate local residents about ReCup. The container is filled to overflowing every day with some of the nearly 200,000 single use coffee cups that get discarded in the city every 24 hours. On its side is a sign that reads, “Munich is fed up!” Not everything about America is so great, apparently.

The problem is one of economics. It involves what economists call “untaxed externalities,” which are the costs of doing business that are passed off for others to pay. In this case, it is the Earth and those who inhabit it who pay. By putting a price on such activities, people will adjust their behavior to arrive at the most economically efficient outcome. It’s the same kind of rationale that makes the idea of a carbon tax so appealing.

In the end, government exhortations and overheated rhetoric only go so far. Figure out a way to make people pay for the consequences of their actions and presto! Most will amend their behavior accordingly. So while Starbucks and McDonalds fret and stew about what to do about single use coffee cups, a small group of entrepreneurs in Germany are actually doing something about them and making a difference.

Will the change happen overnight? Of course not. The ReCup idea is still new and many people insist on using a disposable to-go cup. It takes a long time for people to change their attitudes but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue the search for innovations that lessen our footprint on the Earth.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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