Energy & Environment

A Growth Industry

The volume of trash is escalating as consumers buy more and more food and drinks in throwaway containers.
by | December 2003

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Coffee Crossing is one of those private establishments that perform an essential purpose in public life across America. In my hometown, this one serves as a gathering place where people of all sorts come to drink coffee, talk politics and sports, and keep up with the civic discourse that holds any community together.

But even in cowboy towns such as Livingston, Montana, the old-time cafes and coffee shops are giving way to the fast-food and latte culture. If you ask, Coffee Crossing will serve your coffee in a ceramic mug, but it dispenses most of its drinks in 200 or more paper cups a day--just like Starbucks and other big chains that have spread to the far reaches of the country. That adds up to 70,000 cups a year from just one of seven coffee places in a town of barely 8,000 residents.

It's not, of course, just a Livingston problem. U.S. coffee drinkers now throw out 125 million take-out cups a year. That figure suggests why state and local solid waste managers are sounding discouraged about how much of a dent they've been able to make in the rate at which garbage is accumulating in landfills. Coffee cups are only a part of their problem. Recycling rates have leveled off, while manufacturers keep coming out with fancier packaging as well as throwaway razors, cameras, cleaning cloths and even toilet brushes. "Disposables are exploding right now, and taxpayers and local government are bearing the brunt of disposing of all that waste," complains Tom Watson, a longtime waste-reduction specialist for King County, Washington.

Reducing sources of trash remains the ultimate goal for government garbage experts. It's just sensible for communities to keep as much material as possible from getting thrown out with the trash, leaving less to collect, truck to landfills, incinerate or recycle. Some of us remember drinking milk from reuseable bottles in grade school cafeterias, but now nearly all drinks come in throwaway paper or plastic containers. There are a few do-it-yourselfers who still prefer to buy loose nails from hardware store bins, but manufacturers save money by shipping and selling goods in pre-packaged boxes that are cheap, durable and disposable. The economy still doesn't take enough account of environmental costs, and nobody took much notice this fall when McDonald's decided to scrap the brown paper sacks it began using in the 1980s and went back to bleached white paper bags.

Government waste managers still soldier on with sensible waste- prevention projects. As a result of their efforts, local exchanges are cropping up where residents find discarded furniture and can salvage reusable building materials. The Washington Department of Ecology is moving to buy paper with 100 percent post-consumer content, and Portland, Oregon, agencies are developing procurement standards demanding unbleached paper from companies that meet forest-management standards. This fall, King County and a number of other local agencies began conducting campaigns to encourage residents to give theater tickets and other holiday gifts that don't come in packages and gift wrapping.

"There's sort of a leap of faith in programs like this," Watson concedes. Benefits are tough to quantify, but government procurement standards requiring recycled content should be credited with making a case that big corporations are starting to build on. The electronics industry is now pushing computer component recycling, and Ben & Jerry's sells ice cream in unbleached paperboard pints. UPS offers reusable two-way express envelopes, and Bank of America and Citigroup are turning to recycled paper and cutting back on pointless paperwork. Staples and other chains are beginning to make reasonably priced recycled office supplies more available to Main Street businesses. As processes improve, maybe someday glossy catalogs and magazines-- including this page--will be printed on recycled paper. Composting leftover restaurant food could be another logical way to turn waste now rotting in landfills into a useful commodity.

Starbucks passes coffee grounds out to neighborhood gardeners who turn it into compost. The coffee chain also grants a 10-cent discount to customers who bring their own refillable containers. Starbucks calculates that last year it sold 12 million drinks in commuter mugs, keeping 550,000 pounds of paper out of the trash at its 1,800 outlets.

Coffee Crossing gives you 25 cents off, so I figure my own mug will pay for itself after a couple of months. Neil Ackerstrom, the proprietor, looks for organic farms that will take leftover grounds for compost and hauls cardboard boxes away in his truck to the recycling center. It's hard to know whether the other six coffee shops, 25 restaurants and dozen bars in town will follow that example. But if Coffee Crossing is any measure, maybe government waste managers have reason to take heart that the message is getting through to even the smallest of public-spirited businesses.


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