Earlier this year, a Greenpeace-organized cleanup in Canada found that Nestlé and Tim Hortons share the distinction as Canada’s biggest plastic polluters, with plastic-lined to-go cups the third most common item found in the audit. (Yes, paper coffee cups are lined with plastic that comes into contact with hot beverages.) You can read the full story here.
My daughter Mary Katherine finished her degree in Environmental Governance this month at the University of Guelph in Canada. She plans on enrolling in a waste management certificate program next. To-go cup pollution just about sends her over the edge. She wrote the following proposal as part of a larger project for one of her classes this past semester.
A Strategy to Discourage the Use of Disposable To-Go Cups
The City of Guelph’s Solid Waste Management Master Plan has helped Guelph achieve a 68% waste diversion rate, the highest in the province. However, non-recyclable items are still commonly used in Guelph. One example is the ubiquitous disposable to-go cup provided by chains like Starbucks and Tim Hortons. These cups are convenient, but Canadians use billions of them per year, and they are not recyclable. Well-meaning people often throw these cups into recycling bins, but because they are not recyclable and often contain liquid, they contaminate the otherwise recyclable materials in recycling bins. The City of Guelph needs to implement a strategy to discourage the use of these cups.
Some individuals who are concerned about their waste footprints have voluntarily opted out of using to-go cups. These individuals bring their own travel mugs to coffee-serving businesses. Tim Hortons and Starbucks both apply a ten-cent discount when customers bring travel mugs. However, this discount is not heavily advertised, and it is therefore likely that most consumers are unaware that they can bring travel mugs to coffee-serving businesses. Guelph residents need to be made aware that it is possible for them to use travel mugs. They also need to be made aware of the environmental impacts of to-go cups. A municipal bylaw encompassing two strategies plus a community engagement survey would help prevent the contamination of recyclables and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. First, the bylaw should mandate visible signage in businesses that notifies customers that to-go cups are not recyclable. Second, the bylaw should mandate a 10-cent fee for to-go cups.
Fees are based on the premise that when people are charged to consume an environmentally harmful good, many people will stop consuming that good. There is evidence suggesting that economic instruments like these are effective—municipalities that have imposed fees on plastic bags have seen a decrease in plastic bag consumption. Informational signage about the negative environmental impact of to-go cups is based on similar logic that warning labels on cigarette boxes are based on. Informational instruments educate consumers and allow them to make better-informed decisions about their consumption habits. Ultimately, consumers have the choice of whether or not to consume a product. But when knowledge is presented to consumers that a product is harmful to themselves or the environment, they may choose not to consume it. There is evidence suggesting that warning labels on cigarette boxes discourage people from smoking.
Finally, a survey should be distributed to Guelph residents in order to decide how the revenue from the to-go cup fee should be used. Giving Guelph residents a say in how the revenue will be used will make the policy more politically acceptable. The City of Guelph has conducted community engagement for environmental initiatives in the past, and it should be performed with regards to this initiative as well.
Guelph voted for the first Green MPP in Ontario’s history. It should continue to lead the way on environmental issues and consider tackling the issue of to-go cup waste.