The Throwaway Generation: 25 Billion Styrofoam Cups a Year

According to the coffee cup waste calculator at— an independent project of graphic designer and environmentally concerned coffee consumer Kieran Lynn—when you purchase one cup of coffee in a disposable container every day you are contributing about 22.75 pounds of waste per year.

Brian C. Howard

We all have our favorite café, chain retailer or kiosk that we go out of our way to visit in the morning or on lunch break. We walk in, order, fill up, consume, and throw away our single-serve cups at least once—and often twice—a day without a thought to the consequences. Our daily java fixes had made the café segment of the U.S. coffee industry into an $8.47 billion a year venture by 2003.

But what is the impact of this single-serve fad on your checkbook and the environment? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill." This statistic is disturbing when you consider that 25 billion polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam) cups are thrown away every year, reports the EPA. Polystyrene can be recycled, but the facilities to do so are few and far between, making such efforts inconvenient and largely ineffective to date.

A number of green leaders, from the Dutch Ministry of the Environment to Starbucks" own Green Team, suggest that the number one thing environmentally conscious coffee consumers can do is to "go reusable," whether that’s ceramic, metal or plastic. As a matter of fact, springing for a reusable coffee mug can actually end up saving you money down the road as large coffeehouse chains join smaller cafés and university food services across the country that offer discounts to customers toting their own drinking vessels. Starbucks offers a 10-cent discount for customers carrying their own mugs, and this seemingly small effort encouraged 13.5 million customers to bring their own in 2003, keeping an estimated 586,800 pounds of paper from U.S. landfills.

Colleges and universities are getting in on the action, and the University of California at Berkeley, Colby College, the University of Connecticut and the University of Colorado at Boulder all run programs that provide incoming students with reusable campus mugs, which earn discounts.

Now if only Dunkin" Donuts would follow suit. The company claims to serve one billion cups of coffee a year, or about 2.7 million cups a day. If all these cups were strung together in a straight line, Dunkin" Donuts could create two rings around planet Earth. Yikes.