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A Sobering COVID-19 Fact That Should Change Your Coffee Drinking Behavior

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture

Discover now one of the fallout effects of COVID-19 regarding how you drink your coffee and what you should do to change your behavior and others’ behavior as well.


No, this is not an article about how to drink coffee through a mask. However, it is about one of the fallout effects of COVID-19 that should make coffee drinkers rethink how they order their coffee when out in public—social distancing, mask or no-mask.

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A recent article in The Conversation discusses what it takes to change behavior when it comes to using reusable coffee cups over the throwaway cups typical of every coffeehouse, café and on-the-road gas station or rest stop.

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While most think of COVID-19 as a health problem relevant to disease, it is also an environmental problem as many coffee shops now refuse to accept reusable coffee cups due to the notion that any steps taken to decrease the risk of transmitting the coronavirus—regardless of how remote (with or without scientific support)—is both necessary and prudent. In fact, a surge in both throwaway cups and plastics has been reported going to landfills rather than recycling facilities associated with this measure and the beginning of the pandemic.

To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, worldwide, an estimated 16 billion cups of coffee are used every year, which is attributed to the loss of 6.5 million trees, 4 billion gallons of water waste, and enough energy to power 54,000 homes for one year.

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The numbers are significant. And it’s not a simple problem, or one that is totally blamable on the pandemic.

Recycling throwaway beverage cups are not as recyclable as many believe. Almost all have a thin plastic waterproof lining that most recycling plants cannot process; and thereby, even though were originally disposed of in a recycling bin by the user, eventually wind up in landfills.

One solution has been the promoting of reusable cups at coffee shops, typically with a slight discount in the cost of the coffee. However, at least one study has shown that reusable cups account for less than five percent of sales. Furthermore, there is the estimation that it could take anywhere between 20 to 100 uses of a single cup to offset the greenhouse gas factor when you consider that the reusable cups have to be manufactured in the first place and then washed repeatedly with each use.

So, are reusable cups really not a solution after all and should be scrapped? Perhaps not just yet.

According to research performed by the authors of the aforementioned recent article in The Conversation, reusable cups are just one part of a potentially workable solution if we can change our coffee drinking behavior. In the article, they revealed that:

• Coffee shops offering a discount to reusable cup patrons is ineffective in changing consumer behavior toward encouraging increased reusable cup patronage. In fact, what works better toward changing behavior is to charge more for the use of a throwaway cup rather than offer a pittance for having a reusable cup.

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• Coffee drinkers tend to mimic each other. If you and others make it a habit to be seen using a reusable coffee cup, it actually encourages throwaway cup users to make the switch. Societal pressure and all that; especially in the workplace.

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• Policy makers and manufacturers need to make recycling easier for the consumer to encourage proper recycling behavior. For example, through the use of compostable cups to be deposited in recyclable organic waste bins and/or easy accessibility to rinse the compostable cup before being placed into a general recycling bin.

The last finding holds the most potential, and is the hardest to implement. However, it may only be a matter of time (or desperation) before someone makes the effort and investment to design novel public recycling bins that can solve this waste issue.

With that in mind, perhaps if the public changes how it drinks its coffee, puts pressure on businesses, and shows that we are now ready for change…then perhaps a real solution will follow.

As the article concludes: “Changing habits is hard; but collectively, we can rewrite the waste story.”

It’s something to think about the next time you order a cup of coffee.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between coffee and healthy living. For continual updates about the benefits of coffee on your health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image source courtesy of Pixabay


The Effects of Paper Coffee Cups on The Environment” GreenMathc.co.uk, Last updated: 02 October 2019.

What makes people switch to reusable cups? It’s not discounts, it’s what others do” by Robert Crocker, Sukhbir Sandhu & Sumit Lodhia The Conversation July 21, 2020.

Coffee on The Run: Cultural and Institutional Factors in Waste Behaviors“ Crocker, Robert & Potts, Alana & Sandhu, Sukhbir & Lodhia, Sumit & Orlitzky, March, (2019). Academy of Management Proceedings. 2019. 14805. 10.5465/AMBPP.2019.14805abstract.

Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits” by Kim Borg, Jim Curtis and Jo Lindsay, The Conversation June 23, 2020.