The Watering Hole Blog

FTF #2 – Reusable Coffee Mugs

Let’s Make Using Reusable Hot Beverage Mugs COOL (Again)


 pile of coffee cups

 “Canadians use 1.6 billion disposable hot beverage cups each year.”

– Environment Canada

Yes, you read correctly: Canadians use more than 1.6 billion paper and polystyrene cups every year. That is the equivalent of half a million trees. Yikes! And all those cups – after being used once – have to end up somewhere.

And where the vast majority of those cups ARE ending up is the landfill.

How does your coffee habit

114.5 million kilograms of paper cup waste—the equivalent of 22,900 elephants—is dumped into Canadian landfills each year (Alive website).

In Toronto alone, 1 million paper cups are thrown away every day.

In the U.S., an estimated 25 billion paper coffee cups are used annually.

What it takes to produce a disposable hot beverage paper cup

To produce those 25 billion paper coffee cups in the States every year, an estimated 9.4 million trees have to be cut down, 7 trillion BTUs of energy are needed, and 21.6 billion litres of water are required.

As for Canada? Here are the numbers:

1.6 billion cups in Canada per year

Plus, according to a study conducted by Starbucks and the Alliance for the Environmental Innovation (April 2000), each paper cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24 lbs of CO2 emissions (Carry Your Cup).

In other words, the production of disposable cups is very resource-intensive. It takes a lot of wood, a lot of water, and a lot of energy to put that cup of java in your hand…in a cup that is only going to be used once.

It makes much more sense to purchase a reusable coffee mug and use it over and over again. The only way to reduce the amount of disposable coffee cups we send to landfills is stop using them in the first place. Simple, yes. But apparently not easy.

Tim Hortons and Starbucks have been somewhat proactive in addressing the problem by offering discounts to those who use their own cups, as well as introducing recycling programs. However, a recent CBC Investigates article (“Tim Hortons, Starbucks recycling claims may be garbage,” Oct 30, 2015) revealed the actual destination of cups placed in the recycled containers…and let’s just say it wasn’t the recycling plant 🙁

Disposable cups are difficult to recycle

Disposable coffee cups aren’t like other recyclable materials. Most paper cups are made from only a small amount of recycled materials because recycled paper products aren’t capable of holding hot liquids. In fact, disposable cups really can’t be made from recycled paper because according to Environment Canada, it fails to meet health standards and is not sturdy enough to support liquid.

Plus, in order to prevent the cups from leaking, they are coated with a plastic that can prevent them from being properly recycled. While many people think that paper coffee cups are recyclable, most facilities do not accept them because of their inner plastic lining.

So while the paper coffee cup may seem like an eco-friendly alternative, the lining not only makes the cups difficult to recycle, it also prevents them from breaking down easily in the landfill – and when they do, the lining turns into tiny particles that can end up in the food chain.

Habits are tough to break

Producing and disposing of billions of single-use disposable hot beverage cups is not only over-the-top wasteful, it is a massive use of resources – and could be significantly reduced if more people simply got in the habit of drinking from reusable mugs.

Ahhh…but therein lies the problem: when it comes to human behavior and trying to get people to change their personal habits for the sake of the greater good, that’s where things get tricky.

Because let’s face it, in this day and age, you would pretty much have to have been hiding under a rock (with no internet access) for the past decade not to have heard of the idea of using a reusable coffee mug. It’s not exactly new. Heck, I was using a reusable coffee mug back in my University days in the early 1990’s.

But back then, it was kinda cool to carry a reusable coffee mug. It showed you cared about the planet and, perhaps most importantly, believed that small actions – taken by many – do make a difference.

Today, this is what’s hip:

coffee cup and cell phone

Get this: according to a study done by the Sightline Institute, fewer than two percent of coffee lovers bring their own mugs to Starbucks (“Why You’re Still Not Using that Reusable Coffee Mug,” by Margaret Morales, Apr 7, 2016, The Tyee).

Based on my personal observation at Starbuck’s, Tim Hortons and walking about the streets, this stat, sadly, sounds about right.

So why don’t more people use reuseable coffee cups?

Is it that people don’t care? Or is that people don’t think that, at this point, one less disposable cup is going to make any sort of difference to the landfill? Because if so, technically, this IS true. But if thousands of people made the switch to using a reusable mug for their daily cup/s of take-out coffee, then this would start to make a difference.

Alas, getting people to look beyond their own selves and the small impact that their individual actions have on the bigger picture is not easy to do. But I do know people who think like this…who actually consider the cumulative effect of millions of people’s actions, including their own. So it is possible.

“Several other obstacles stand in the way of a reusable-mug renaissance,” explains Margaret Morales in The Tyee article on Apr 7, 2016. “Carrying around a tumbler is inconvenient; unique travel-mug sizes can give baristas trouble; and, interestingly, the paper coffee cup has also become a status symbol, a signal of wealth and a busy schedule, and consumers are loathe to give that up.”

Interesting. I suspect Morales may be on to something there.

“For coffee lovers,” Morales continues, “there’s the missed chance to show off your cosmopolitan lifestyle by slinging around a fresh paper cup. There’s just something about that crisp white cylinder that’s hard to let go of.”

Personally, I don’t get this – because it’s not how I think. But considering only two percent of the coffee drinkers purchasing their drinks from a coffee shop are actually bothering to use a reusable coffee cup, I can’t help but wonder if somehow, over the past decade, there really has been some sort of cultural shift away from caring enough about the environment to at least try and lessen one’s impact in some small way.

Are we giving up on believing that no matter what we do, it isn’t going to make any difference anyway, so why bother?

There are, of course, many other reasons why people don’t use a reusable coffee cup: maybe they are not aware of the fact that billions of disposable cups are heading to the landfill each year, or perhaps they simply don’t care?

Or maybe some people believe that disposable paper coffee cups are okay because they’ll get recycled (not necessarily). I certainly thought this – when I didn’t have my reusable cup with me but still wanted a coffee, tea or hot chocolate.

Or maybe people are just busy? Or perhaps they forgot to bring it with them…and so on. At the end of the day – or the beginning, as is often the case when it comes to coffee – I suppose it comes down to priorities.

If a person genuinely believes that their tiny act of using a reusable coffee cup will make any sort of difference (if for no other reason than at least they are not contributing to the problem), then they may make it a priority to get a reusable mug, remember to bring it with them – and then actually use it.

And maybe if more people start using reusable hot beverage cups, doing so will become cool…again 🙂

What can you do?

If you’re not already, you could consider making a reusable mug a part of your daily routine:

– Buy a reusable mug you really like

– Keep a reusable cup in your vehicle and/or bag

– Use your mug for tea, coffee, water, pop, and other beverages

– Wash your cup out at the end of the day and use it again the next day

– Use reusable mugs at your place of work

– If you’re drinking a beverage in a coffee shop and don’t have a reusable cup with you, ask for a to-stay mug

– Share this blog with others

If you are using – or are going to start using – a reusable coffee mug

If you have a plastic reusable mug, be sure to check the recyclable number on the bottom. According to National Geographic’s Green Guide, those with the numbers 2, 4, and 5 will not release substances into your food and can be recycled in most municipalities.

If you prefer metal, choose one without a liner, since some epoxy liners contain the unhealthy chemical bisphenol A.

Thank you for reading and I would love to hear any feedback you may have – either on your thoughts on reusable coffee mugs or on Face the Future in general.


Face the Future is an on-line environmental awareness campaign that raises awareness about how and why individuals can lessen their environmental footprint one step at a time. The 2016 blog series runs from Apr 22 to Jun 24. To receive the blogs via e-mail, here is the link to subscribe . Face the Future is an initiative of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc.  

Share this post

9 thoughts on “FTF #2 – Reusable Coffee Mugs”

  1. Since I do not drink coffee ever. (I’ve had one cup in my life) This is not an area where I contribute to our pollution problem in a big way. But I do stop occasionally at a fast food restaurant, I’d say about 2 or 3 times a month. And then do use, admittedly, everything disposable. Is there any other option at McDonald’s? I think A&W and Tim Hortons you can but not so sure of the other fast food chains, even when you eat in. What’s your suggestion for this scenario?

  2. I am guilty of this often but at work we don’t have paper cups so we are required to use our reusable mug and wash it out. Instead of a measly 5 or 10 cent discount, perhaps a surcharge for the cup at coffee shops would encourage folks like me to at least think about bringing my own cup. I know of businesses that charge extra for grocery bags if you don’t bring your reusable one.

  3. Hi Heathe! Yes, I agree that if the coffee shops offered a more significant discount to customers who brought their own cup, this would really encourage people to do so more often.

  4. Good question, Jac. I don’t think there is an option to eat on a “dine-in” plate (vs disposable) in Canada and the US. But McDonald’s in Australia tried it in 2013:

    Interesting! Not sure if they still offer that or not.

    I hear ya about how much stuff gets thrown away after a fast food feast. It sucks. But like you, I still do eat fast food a couple of times a month – and just recycle what I can when I get home (the paper bag, etc).

    I will do a Face the Future blog about fast food and the disposable waste, as I am curious to learn more.

  5. This comment came in via FB:

    It would help if disposable coffee cups weren’t featured so heavily in TV shows. If those disposable cups were replaced with reusable ones, it sure would send a powerful visual message to all those repeat viewers! Even though I was a huge fan of shows like The Gilmore Girls, the constant use of throwaway cups bugged me. It was incongruous with the intelligent writing that went into that show.
    SL, Calgary, AB

  6. And this comment was made on FB, too:

    I’ve been using them (reusable coffee mugs) since the 90’s! Starbucks makes the best ones, you can throw them in a bag and never worry that they’ll leak.
    DS, Vancouver, BC

  7. And this comment came in via FB, as well:

    They (disposable coffee cups) should be banned like plastic shopping bags – it would force us to remember our travel mugs.
    LW, Calgary, AB

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.