Get it to go Green: R.I.P. Styrofoam
Coffee to go doesn't have to mean 1,000-year landfills.
Not since the ’80s has talk of fast-food waste been so popular. Then, it was yellow Styrofoam containers with golden arches.
By 1990, in large part due to a community campaign, McDonald’s announced it would toss its last Big Mac container made of polystyrene—the scientific term for Styrofoam.
Today, 14 U.S. cities from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, have banned non-biodegradable take-out containers. In Toronto, a group called Naturopack has taken the lead of these cities and started a campaign for ethical takeaway. Urging the City of Toronto to provide business incentives for restaurants and coffee shops using biodegradable containers, Naturopack has also amassed a petition asking council to ban take-out Styrofoam entirely. In January, the group held a sold-out fundraiser at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel with performances by eco-minded bands and local comedians pulling out sets on the environment.
“It’s hard to find anyone who actually likes Styrofoam,” explained Naturopack director Kurt Firla. “You can look at it in the way of an orange. It has a package around it—the peel. If we can someday have packages that are either completely reusable or they vanish back into the earth, nourishing it when you’re done, then we’ve actually done something smart. We’ve used our brains and mimicked what nature does.”
At the event I met Jennifer Wright, who started Greenshift, an organization helping companies to “green” their workplaces. Wright has also spearheaded a new biodegradable packaging movement for Canadian restaurants. Wright worked with suppliers for what she refers to as “three years of talking to a wall” to initiate a source for biodegradable paper coffee cups. Now, on a table at the Naturopack event was a display of her efforts—a full line of bio restaurant containers, including coffee cups with a vegetable-based resin making them OK to throw into city green bins or properly turned landfills.
Wright told me she has helped nearly 200 cafés across the country convert to biodegradable cups. Most insightful was her coffee shop marketing plan. It would allow a coffee chain like Second Cup to switch to bio takeaway cups for as little as one cent per cup in a test market.
Over a Million Cups Served
Like most coffee shops, Second Cup serves its choices of brew in paper cups that have a plastic resin, which doesn’t readily biodegrade and can’t be recycled. The lining is made of polyethylene, a petroleum product highly resistant to moisture that’s used in consumer products.
From the business crowds with no time to sit, to the leisurely weekend strollers, Second Cup’s 400 stores serve an average of 2,700 to-go coffees every week. Doing the math (over one million cups trashed), it’s no wonder this chain and others have taken on several social responsibility initiatives. These have become a trend of corporations over the past few years.
Timothy’s is looking at turning used coffee grinds into fire logs, while Starbucks pays employees $10 an hour for volunteer work in the community.
All 40 of Second Cup’s coffees are grown on “ethical estates.” Its marketing people actually visit the estates, known to have free housing, education, and dental plans for their workers.
Now, the ubiquitous coffee giant Tim Hortons has begun lab tests with two suppliers of corn-based biodegradable cups.
“Here’s Tim Hortons’ objective—and we’re going to get there, it’s just a matter of how—we want our cup to be compostable and/or recyclable,” said Nick Javor, senior vice president. But Javor explained the bio suppliers can’t meet the needs of such a busy and far-reaching coffee chain yet.
The move came since a 1998 study tallied the amount of litter Tim Hortons is responsible for. Nova Scotia’s environment department found it made up 47 per cent of all fast-food trash in the province.
Testing the Cups