Single-use cups: choose to make a difference

Karen Lebeau | January 17th, 2018

“Just make sure your handprint (harmonious or regenerative impact) is bigger than your footprint (harmful or degenerative impact).“

Larry Santoyo (teacher and practitioner of Permaculture Design

As 2018 begins, many of us will have already considered the ways in which we would like to change our personal status quo and be a better version of ourselves.

For me, each new year begins with a review of the products and food I purchase, followed by consideration of how these choices could impact the environment. I then look for ways that my family and I can change our habits to have a more positive handprint to contribute less waste and reduce our overall environmental footprint.

Like many people, my family started using canvas bags instead of plastic many years ago, and since learning more about plastic waste we have continually adjusted how we live to eliminate the amount of ever-present plastic we bring in and ultimately send out of our home.

The single-use waste problem in Vancouver

Did you know that more than two million plastic bags, 2.6 million paper coffee cups, and countless foam takeout food containers are thrown out each week in Vancouver? In fact, paper cups make up 22 per cent of all litter found on the streets, and make up 50 per cent of all public waste bins in Vancouver.

The problem with single-use beverage cups

Which brings me to the main point of this article: single-use coffee/tea cups (cup, sleeve and plastic lid) seem to be synonymous with working life. I am often disheartened by the large number of used and discarded coffee cups that I see in the garbage cans at all the VCH hospitals I work at, and even worse, crowded in garbage bins and forgotten on streets all around the city.

I frequently see colleagues returning from breaks with single use cups, and on more than one occasion have noted that the cups, lids and paper sleeves are disposed of in the garbage at the end of the day.

I do not want to come across as telling others how to live their lives, but I passionately want to promote Earth care as something of high importance. I often wonder if in our busy days as health care providers caring for people, we seem to have forgotten that we also need to extend great care to the planet we inhabit. Earth care is synonymous with people care.

The fact is that most disposable coffee cups are made from cardboard with a thin layer of plastic tightly attached to the cup. This keeps the drink warm and prevents the cardboard from becoming soggy. But it also makes the cup essentially non-recyclable (by environmental degradation). It takes about 20 years for such a cup to decompose.

All parts of a disposable cup are recyclable

I contacted Recycle BC to inquire as to whether single use cups are recyclable. The representative told me that in Vancouver all components are recyclableA quick internet search shows that many other municipal recycling programs offer the same option.

With a bit of dedication, anyone can refuse single-use coffee cups and buy a mug to fill your coffee. Even better, buy a few refillable mugs so that you always have them on hand.

If you must use single use cups think before you toss it off to the garbage and ultimately the earth. Take the time to recycle the lid and the sleeve in the appropriate containers. Rinse out the cup and pack it home to your own blue bin if applicable. If not, ask a friend to kindly take it to their blue bin for you.

Recycling at home of single-use beverage cups 

  • the cup goes in to the blue bin
  • the lid goes in the blue bin
  • the paper sleeve goes in the yellow bag

Hospital recycling of single-use beverage cups

  • the lid goes in the plastic recycling bin
  • the sleeve goes in paper recycling bin
  • the cup is NOT recyclable and should be taken home for recycling

Learn more about recycling coffee/tea cups from the Green Care Team.

Interested in learning more about zero-waste lifestyles?

There is much to learn and a wealth of information online about living zero waste lifestyles and how to achieve it. Once you start considering and making change in your own life, you can’t stop noticing how much single-use plastic everyone uses and ultimately, discards.There is also a wealth of information about simple alternatives and subtle life style changes that are easy to incorporate and have lasting effects.

I encourage you to watch one of many documentaries about plastic waste and its impact on the earth. Plastic Ocean is a great documentary if you wonder what the real impact of our plastic reliance is and where much of this cast-off is ultimately ending up.

I challenge you to make 2018 your year to move away from single-use coffee cups, and implement creative options that help to create a healthier environment. With a bit of effort and thought, we can all be a part of the change.

About the Author

Karen Lebeau

Karen Lebeau is a registered nurse. She is also working towards being part of the Green Leaders Team.

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11 comments on “Single-use cups: choose to make a difference

  • Kamal says:

    Can we get a bin for coffee on the units to place cups in? The amount of coffee consumed on units should warrant something like that. I take transit home and admit that I do not bring my cup home to recycle when I don’t bring my own mug. I think a lot of people would support a recycling bin for the actual coffee cup in the hospital. Even if there was one or two bins in the lobby I’d go there.

  • Elizabeth Mbithi says:

    I am more concerned by the single use plastic cups we use on our units! A family of three visits, they wish three cups of water. The patient wishes two cups of water. One with ice and another one with just water…twice a day. The kitchen delivers one plastic cup of water on the meal trays for each meal. Let’s do the math. In a unit of 30 patients, that’s approximately 100 cups. A DAY! I am often appalled and wonder why we don’t have a system in place that promotes the reduced use of plastic. I’m sure if we asked family to bring in a cup from home and their own water bottles and instead have jugs floating around or water fountains at vantage points, we could significantly promote a culture that uses less plastic. Most people do own and carry water bottles when out in the community so I usually wonder why the same is not promoted within the hospital walls.
    The cafeteria, as noted above, is a place that could champion reduced waste. We have bins all over and they are clearly marked, however, sometimes I feel that the message should be emphasized just as much as washing hands. We have infection control on the watch for good hand hygiene…why don’t we have plastic control on watch for the same kind of proper recycling practices?

    • Sonja Janousek says:

      Hi Elizabeth! What a great idea! I love the idea of asking patients and families to bring in their own water bottles when possible. There are a few hospital units like medical imaging that have already put similar practices in place by asking patients to bring their own bags to hold garments. Recycling is a good strategy for plastics, but a better strategy is reducing the total amount of plastics disposed of in the first place. And yes, we could definitely learn something from the hand hygiene campaign. Cheers!

      • Jillian says:

        Just to add that having water fountains strategically placed in health centres allow patients, staff and visitors the chance to access drinking water at anytime.

        My workplace is a fairly new building with no water fountains at all!!! Clients and visitors are always asking for a drink of water but there is non to give.

        In high schools now they have water fountains that have been adapted to accept water bottles and this has been a huge step in getting students to bring their own bottles and to stay away from high sugar drinks from vending machines. This also reduces excess plastic bottles being used every day.

        It’s time for water fountains to be a standard feature in all our health care sites.

  • Ruth says:

    I think staff would be encouraged more to bring their own travel mugs if we got a 10cent discount like you do at Starbucks! With the amoutn of coffee bought by staff at LGH I don’t think iits to much to ask. Until I see this happen at the coffee bar, i will continue to go else where for my coffee!!

    • Karen LeBeau says:

      I think that would be a great idea as well Ruth. But for the price of a coffee, the 10% discount does not add up to much.

      Maybe a better approach would be to CHARGE extra for the single use cups. Maybe even to the tune of 50cents? I think that this messaging might resonate with some people more than a discount for bringing a mug. And really, I struggle with people having to be rewarded for the good behavior, the neccessary behavior of caring about our environment. If you bring a mug you are likely already on board. A production fee/conservation fee to those who continue to use single use cups via a charge and a reminder that the cost is present because they did not bring their own mug today might have more impact? Just a thought!

      • Jamieson Anderson says:

        The café where I work does this. Get a large for the price of a medium if you bring in your own mug, and every 10 coffees you purchase you get 1 free (but you can only earn towards that 10 if you bring in your own mug). It worked for me!

    • Jesse says:

      I agree Ruth, hospital coffee shops/cafeterias should offer discounts for bringing your own coffee mugs. Cafeteria’s should not be using plastic dishes that’s lot of waste there.

  • Jillian says:

    Thank you for bringing this important subject to light once again!

    I would like to add to this topic by reminding everyone that the single use Keurig coffee makers and pods add to the problem of creating more plastic waste. Ideally it would great to see these mega waste producers removed from all sites.

    • Karen LeBeau says:

      I agree completely Jillian. Our goal should ultimately be to REFUSE plastic, not concern ourselves so much with recycling. There is an environmental cost with prodcution of items, and not doubt, with recycling as well. Every little reduction in prodcution and consumption matters.

    • Caroline says:

      I bought a package of 10 reusable Keurig coffee pods at Canadian Tire. I take my own ground coffee to work to use in my pod at the Keurig coffee maker. Each filter is good for about 10 uses and it can then be put in recycling.

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