Discouraging the Scourge of Disposable To-Go Cups

Bring your own cup to the café

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.

Pond freezing over with a disposable coffee cup and ducks
Cups unlimited

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.

11 Replies to “Discouraging the Scourge of Disposable To-Go Cups”

  1. Thank God for Mary Katherine, others of her generation, and yourself. It makes me crazy to go into a Starbucks and see so many people sitting enjoying their coffee in one-time use cups. I asked the baristas why they don’t at least ask people if they’ll be staying in to enjoy their beverage – I think that many just don’t even think about it. We need our politicians to stand up and mandate these charges for products that harm the environment, and businesses such as Starbucks to at least make an effort to educate their clientele. Also, all recyling/garbage at Starbucks seems to be crammed into the same container…eliminating any chance at recycling. No one seems to care.

    I vote Mary Katherine for PM of Canada one day. Please tell her thank you for her efforts!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you D’Arcy! I will tell MKat to run. She can be the first Green PM 😀
      ~ Anne Marie

  2. Congrats to Mary Katherine on completing her degree (and her environmental passion)!
    I also went to Guelph. Graduated in 2005 and fled the cold!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Alisa! MK really loved it there. It’s such a cute town. It is much warmer here in California though 😀 Where did you flee to?
      ~ Anne Marie

  3. Debbie Pyle Verhoeven says: Reply

    I live just down the road from Guelph, in London, Ontario. Although, I know this is not the answer to the problem, we can put the Starbucks and Tim Horton’s to-go cups in our recycling. My husband and I do bring our own travel mugs when we get takeout coffee. My biggest beef is with people who can’t be bothered to even put their to-go cups in the garbage, but just toss them onto the ground when they are finished with them. Single use plastic water bottles are another huge problem here. Even though these can be recycled, a lot of people still just throw them on the ground rather than make an effort to find a garbage can or recycle bin. Congratulations to your daughter on getting her degree. The world needs more young people like her.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Debbie re: the congratulations 🙂 I know London. It is very close to Guelph. I have friends who live there and a neighbor down here from London. My daughter occasionally sent me pics of Tim Hortons cups tossed on the ground while she was at school. She said they are all over (and Starbucks cups too but she prefers Tim Hortons–in her own cup). Happy new year!
      ~ Anne Marie

  4. Congrats to Mary Katherine and to you too for raising such a passionate young woman. I too grew up around Guelph and went to high school there. I only went to the university as a visitor. I ended up going to UWO in London Ontario. Where is she planning on doing her waste management program?

  5. Regina Schwarzenböck says: Reply

    Hi Anne Marie,
    first of all: Thank you for your great blog! I am really looking forward to each new article.
    Have you read about the deposit system for to-go cups Munich implemented a while ago? Although it’s not zero waste it is definitely a step in the righr direction. Here is an English article I found on this project: https://news.cgtn.com/news/326b6a4d78454464776c6d636a4e6e62684a4856/share.html
    Maybe Guelph could start something similar?
    Best regards,
    Regina from Munich

  6. This is encouraging news. I was hopeful that we would elect our Matt Richter into office, I am in Muskoka. The Green Party is getting stronger all the time indicating that the message is spreading. More and more people are calling on a government that will reflect and consider the enviromental impact we have, and be proactive with making changes. So much is about influence and businesses have power. Unfortunately they are often guided by their bottom line. They need support from not just the people but the government.

  7. Congratulations to your daughter. Her article was very informative. I didn’t know about the election of a Green in Guelph. I live in Windsor ON. A few hours down the road from Guelph. I am sorely disappointed in Canada’s response to the IPPC reports. I write to my MP & MPP’s and get replies but nothing seems to change.
    I am heartened that the next generation seem to have bigger plans……I will also vote for your daughter and people like her.

  8. I have a habit of bringing a reusable cup when I am getting a cup of coffee to go, but I find unless you have the branded cup from the establishment, they don’t offer a discount for bringing your own! Very frustrating. Something to work on.

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