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« Two years later | Main | On scientific freedom »

Thinking, or not thinking, about coffee

Today's "stupidity signalling" story is the mainstream media's excitement over a report that we are throwing away three billion disposable coffee cups each year. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that disposable cups are disposed of on such a prodigious scale because they are made of very cheap, very abundant materials and need little energy along the way. Nor do they seem to have clocked that ceramic cups are much more expensive because they require huge amounts of energy to make.

Still, this nonsense does fill up their pages for them.

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Reader Comments (107)

Coffee cups are the new plastic bags / bottled water / soda cans.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlberto Zaragoza Comendador

Here's a guardian story from 2009 about ceramic v disposable.

Despite the fact the research it refers to points to disposable paper cups possibly being more energy and resource efficient than ceramic the stories conclusion is that disposable paper cups are wasteful.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

In fact a lot of the fuss in these articles is that many of the coffee-shop chains are misleading customers by claiming that the cups are recyclable when in fact they are not.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:15 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

To get things into perspective, how much energy does it take to cultivate, harvest, transport, and process the coffee beans, to package the product, to drive to the supermarket to buy the coffee (along with other things of course), to make the coffee, then to wash-up and dry a ceramic coffee cup?

I have no idea but before getting excited about disposable coffee cups, I'd want to be assured that the disposable coffee cup was actually the dominating factor in the use of materials and energy.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Actually, Bish, I thought the most 'stupidity signalling' I've read today was from a letter in the DT describing how the Visit Scotland website seems to have air-brushed out wind-farms:

SIR – I’ve just been watching a fantastic new video called Scotland: A Spirit of its Own (US version) on the Visit Scotland website. It shows the magnificent scenery that makes Scotland a paradise for visitors.

Curiously enough, there is not a single wind turbine to be seen. Perhaps Visit Scotland has finally got the message that people come to our country to see natural landscapes, not wind farms.

Blanefield, Stirlingshire

Seeing as you're from that neck of the woods it would be good to know if the scenes in the video are actually true to life, ie: there really are no wind-turbines present.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

Reusable and disposable cups: An energy-based evaluation


A group of five different types of reusable and disposable hot drink cups have been analyzed in detail with respect to their overall energy costs during fabrication and use. Electricity generating methods and efficiencies have been found to be key factors in the primary energy consumption for the washing of reusable cups and a less important factor in cup fabrication. In Canada or the United States, over 500 or more use cycles, reusable cups are found to have about the same or slightly more energy consumption, use for use, as moulded polystyrene foam cups used once and then discarded. For the same area paper cups used once and discarded are found to consume less fossil fuel energy per use than any of the other cup types examined. Details of this analysis, which could facilitate the comparative assessment of other scenarios, are presented.

my bold

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Re: Harry Passfield

If you are certain that they have airbrushed wind factories out then raise a complaint to the ASA. They might be forced to withdraw the advert and suffer the bad publicity from it.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

As you say, it is all a complete load of nonsense and a complete waste of time. This country has far more pressing problems than worrying about disposing of disposable cups.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:32 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Don't you people reuse those cups for starting seedlings? What do you use for that?

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered Commentergnome

TerryS: Perhaps I should have put 'air-brushed' in inverted commas - as I can't be sure that is the case. It's just seemed to me ironic that the video extols the virtues of Scotland's landscape when, afaik, it's pretty difficult to view it without a wind turbine spoiling the view.

Mar 16, 2016 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

How about the concept of a 'cup-for-life', after all it works for bags and it wouldn't be hard for everyone to carry around their own cup just in case they need a coffee.
(sorry the silliness gets to me)

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered Commenterwoodsy42

Never mind keeping the National Grid stable and the lights on, I think that the efficient use of paper cups is such an important issue that the Energy Minister should issue a new decree to ensure that all 100% of paper/plastic cups are recycled by 2050.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:06 AM | Registered Commenterlapogus

A lot of re-cycling appears to me to take far more energy than simply dumping items in landfill, of which we have plenty in the UK. I'd be interested to know if any serious study has been carried out regarding the energy consumed in the home by washing items for recycling, by the vehicles which collect then, at the depots where they are sorted, transporting the different items to various locations for re-use and in re-using the materials compared with starting from basics. In addition, what is the cost of the manpower involved in doing this work?
No one ever seems to consider the overall cost from end to end, just statements like 'it saves energy to make bottles from re-cycled glass' with out counting the cost of collecting and sorting the glass.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterEnglish Pensioner


"Don't you people reuse those cups for starting seedlings? What do you use for that?"

We use Royal Worcester for the Petunias and Crown Derby to bring on the Asparagus.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:35 AM | Registered Commenterjamesp


"any serious study"

There probably has been, but no-one will publish it!

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:36 AM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Wait until the Greens discover that the coffee that people drink in those cups actually ends up being excreted as toxic waste products. Think of all of the damage caused to the Earth by all of that waste (that could be prevented by simply banning the consumption of coffee).

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrank Cook

Woodsy42 makes an interesting indirect point. I am curious, who actually receives the 5p from the sale of the plastic carrier bag? Presumably it's the supermarket, which, from my casual observations, seems to sell a considerable amount of plastic bags still! I can't say that I have seen a significant reduction in the number of carrier bags littering the streets, then again, I never really did see that many before the charge!

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Like blunt scissors for children, it keeps them busy and distracted, and not playing with something more harmful.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:50 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Perhaps Andrea Loathsome would like a zero coffee society by 2080. I have heard terrible rumours that claim that coffee has (dare I say it) CARBON in it.........

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterIvor Ward

Here's the case for polystyrene cups. It's an interesting comparison with paper cups which cost 2.5 times more.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered Commenterson of mulder

One comment yesterday — landfill is a form of recycling. It recycles land.
And incineration (which was the other 'naughty' mentioned) makes use of waste material to provide heat and power. What wasn't mentioned was that the end product is ash which has horticultural uses.
It never seems to occur to these idiots that we have been recycling for generations and their preferred methods (over-simplified, of course, because they can only ever see the down side to things they don't understand) are not the only ones nor necessarily the most useful or efficient.

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:56 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

"cups is not an important issue" - No its about the PRINCIPLE ...It is wrong to BE DECEPTIVE at any level in green issues.

The ironic bit : I believe that coffee workers are not white males..Therefore if you are a coffee drinker you are an EVIL EXPLOITER ...............#WhiteMansGuilt

Mar 16, 2016 at 10:57 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen


I was thinking the same thing. You burn the cups and use the ash. It would be a matter of working out the turnaround rate for growing new trees though I'm sure there are other considerations.

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterMicky H Corbett

This is a bit like the disposable nappy research whereby the right-on environmentally conscious parents are actually causing more environmental damage via the detergents used to wash re-usable nappies ending up in the water cycle. Or the research that showed a gas-guzzling Jeep was less environmentally damaging than a Prius thanks to all the rare metals mining and criss-crossing of the manufacture across the globe.

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

stewgreen: "I believe that coffee workers are not white males..Therefore if you are a coffee drinker you are an EVIL EXPLOITER"
... and a sexist, there aren't there any female workers or are there ?
... and an EMPLOYER because you provide work where there wouldn't be without you demanding coffee

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen

'Woodsy42 makes an interesting indirect point. I am curious, who actually receives the 5p from the sale of the plastic carrier bag? '
The money goes to various charities which are chosen for us by the great and the good. When carrier bag policy was voted through the leaders of each of the main parties were millionaires!

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

'Woodsy42 makes an interesting indirect point. I am curious, who actually receives the 5p from the sale of the plastic carrier bag? '
The money goes to various charities which are chosen for us by the great and the good. When carrier bag policy was voted through the leaders of each of the main parties were millionaires!

Tony Blair, that great Socialist lawyer, being the greates millionaire of them all, especially with the Blair's property portfolio! DAISNAID, anyone?

Mar 16, 2016 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Disposable coffee cups would be OK if they weren't just thrown out of car windows, together with crisp packets, KFC buckets, huge boxes which once contained burgers etc. The ultimate stupid throwaway is the aluminium can. If I had my way I'd put a 20p deposit on the things which would clear up a lot of very long-lasting rubbish.

Anyone disagreeing is welcome to come along to Spalding's Chair Hill. Bring a rubbish bag.


Mar 16, 2016 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

Julian Flood
I would add water bottles to that list, due to the sparsity of fast food outlet in Limousin he main littering I see when cycling seems to be plastic bottles.

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

I used to collect aluminium cans for my local scout group, and sold them to the local scrap yard - a very worthwhile distraction when dog-walking. Now THAT is sensible recycling! (dog now dead, and we have an allotment, so no time for walking!)

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimonJ

The obvious greeny solution is hemp cups - optionally edible.

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

I think michael hart got closest to the real evil truth ^.^

This is all part of the grand plan, not of the green but of the rich and powerful from whatever source. The plan is to keep the plebs (er that's us) busy with non existent problems while they keep going to the bank with all the money (thank you George Carlin).

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:30 PM | Registered CommenterDung

If we ban disposable cups, their very survival will be threatened, and they will become an endangered species. To prevent extinction, a tax can be levied on the extra costs of energy used to provide clean reusable cups, and this money can be used to provide employment, for more clueless idiots.

If polythene bags are so bad because they take hundreds of years to breakdown,, why do they disintegrate so quickly whilst being carried across a supermarket car park?

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

There's a hill in Spalding? :-)

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS


they require huge amounts of energy to make

More importantly:

They require huge amount of energy to take care of, collect, clean, dry and store if they were to be re-used many times.

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonas N

Dave S, no, it's what the satnav says when I drive along the road between Rushford and Coney Weston. It pronounces it as spaldings CHAIR hill which always amuses me. (We are country dwellers and have to find our entertainment where we can.)

Plastic bottles as well, 20p on them.


Mar 16, 2016 at 12:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

@Mar 16, 2016 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

There are certainly vast numbers of wind turbines in Scotland. I think it comes down to the question of where you point the camera. If you film at Tantallon Castle, say, you don't want to point your camera southwards, down the road, because the hills to the south are covered in the devil's windmills. If you point across the Forth, you're probably in danger of picking up the odd wind-farm in Fife, too, but it possibly won't require too much (wind-generated) electronic wizardry to make them blend into the background.

The thing is that your point is entirely right: if somebody is filming Scotland, with the aim of attracting tourists to its beautiful landscapes, while pointedly omitting some of the most prominent eyesores, that is both dishonest in itself and is, simultaneously, a tacit admission that wind-farms are a blight on the landscape.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon is planning to carpet-bomb Scotland with ever more turbines. I wonder if the film-makers were told they were working to a deadline.

Mar 16, 2016 at 12:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

I hate plastic and paper cups and will go to some trouble to get coffee to drink at a table inside a joint which will provide a china cup. I don't care much about comparitive environmental effects. Most of the concern here is promoted by those who wish only to produce an air of 'everyone doing their bit'. It's a false way to convince the public they are doing good when they really are ,making no difference.

The strategy is pointed out in the 'Warm Words' document produced by the IPPR years ago. Anyone who hasn't read it, should.

Mar 16, 2016 at 1:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

James:"a bit like the disposable nappy research... or gas-guzzling Jeep was less environmentally damaging than a Prius thanks to all the rare metals mining and criss-crossing of the manufacture across the globe."

The simplest way to tell whether one option requires more energy is to look at the price tag, because price and energy consumption are extremely closely related.

So, it's almost invariably true that if you do something because someone says its "Green" and not because of the price, then the only way you are being "green" is in the sense of gullible.

Mar 16, 2016 at 1:39 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

Another eco-panic press-release mindlessly parroted and pasted by all the mainstream media.

I am curious, who actually receives the 5p from the sale of the plastic carrier bag?

I don't know, but when I asked the local chip shop guy about the plastic bag inspector, he laughed bitterly.

"It's not a single inspector, it's always at least two".

Apparently they tally up bags in and bags out and the amount collected.

Now what you need to be curious about is how these inspectors are paid.

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered Commenterkellydown

"It's not a single inspector, it's always at least two".

Clearly they need to "inspect" in pairs for protection, understandably I think!

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

If they required dogs to wash their own re-usable nappies (that's diapers for US readers), then their owners wouldn't need to buy non-branded plastic bags to hang dog-lead from trees in my local forest.

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:27 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart


Plastic Bag Revenue Wardens? ... you are kidding? ... please....

At the risk of sowing inspiration ... it's got to be toilet paper next . (Has George Osborne sat down yet?)

Who employs them? (I know we do) - as in it's a national tax - is there an organ of central government enforcing this ?

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:37 PM | Registered Commentertomo

The people who whinge about plastic bottles were obviously not born and brought up in the pre-plastic era when all bottles were glass. What would you prefer - litter of easily removable plastic or a load of broken glass?

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:41 PM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

Just think of all the well paid executives selling coffee as something special, because it comes from developing countries, employing the poor and needy, who would lose their jobs.

JamesG, is thinking on the right line though. Many food retailers get away with selling reconstituted food that looks and tastes like cardboard, so if this idea was extended to make reconstituted food that looks and functions like cups, it would help street vermin do something useful, and keep the urban environment clean.

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:45 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

wait till they calculate how much toilet paper we use....

Mar 16, 2016 at 2:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

Golf Charlie's latest post seems almost reasonable. Is he losing his touch, or have I now been immunized against him?

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

I think that they were referring to K-cups, used to brew one cup at a time.

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimB

Leo Smith, but they recycle loo paper don't they?

The best Green Blob ideas keep being recycled, no matter how many times they have been proved pointless and useless before. If only the Green Blob could be recycled into something useful, the lasting legacy might be favourable.

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:35 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

EP, 10:27am: Too right. Back in the 80's I was involved in a Council of Europe working group investigating the safety of food contact materials. I was amazed to find out that, at that time, there was no facility to recycle green glass anywhere in Europe. Clear and brown glass was, but green glass was crushed and shipped to Brazil for recycling.

BTW, used disposable cups, along with other used paper, card and plastics that we 'recycle' are not recycled into new cups or other food contact materials as the processes used to recycle them are not aggressive enough to remove any bacterial or fungal spores, or any potentially toxic compounds that may be present. They generally get turned into things like rubbish sacks, traffic cones and fibreboard.

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:40 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

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