Monday, February 21, 2011

Roll Up the Rim to Waste

I have a confession to make. This isn't easy. As recently as a few years ago, I willingly and eagerly fed my addictive personality by participating in a contest that required me to waste single-use paper coffee cups despite owning an insulated travel mug. Based on the title of this post, my Canadian readers know what I'm talking about and can probably relate. At the risk of alienating those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, but in staying true to my values, I will not post a link to the contest website in this post. All you really need to know is that this yearly contest is run by a popular coffee chain, that the prizes range from a preloaded coffee cards to mountain bikes to cars, and that the nationwide compulsive consumption of coffee in single-use paper coffee cups began today and will continue for a few months. If you're wondering, I've never won more than a donut.

There are many types of people in this world. Some aren't terribly susceptible to the temptation of contests like these, while others dramatically increase their coffee consumption in a desperate attempt to win. Those who usually buy hot beverages from a variety of stores find themselves heading back, over and over again, to the same coffee chain - if they're going to be buying coffee, it might as well be from the store where they have a chance of winning a prize, right? Worst of all, people like me intentionally leave their travel mugs at home because the contest is won or lost right there on the single-use paper cup. My most shameful memory from the years I participated is of the day on which I brought my insulated mug to the store, had it filled with coffee, then asked for an empty, unused paper cup because I deserved a chance to win "in return for my purchase", which is how I think I put it to the employee at the time.

Let's take a step back and think about what we're really buying into. I believe we frequently ignore some pretty serious issues around coffee: society tells us to say no to drugs, yet most of us are physically addicted to caffeine, and our culture endorses, even encourages this behaviour. We support the local food movement, but insist on consuming large amounts of a beverage that is made from a bean that grows nowhere near here - and it's no special occasion delicacy, no, we want it multiple times a day! Sustainable production methods are important when it comes to the fruits and veggies we eat, but our favourite Arabica is most often grown in full-sun and fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive conditions, causing deforestation, the destruction of habitat in some of the world's most biodiverse regions, and soil and water degradation. While the friendly barista enjoys a decent wage and the tips we leave in the jar, plantation workers are exploited and farmers are unfairly paid for the harvest. Talk about bang for your buck! So many economic, environmental, and social injustices for such a low price.

But it's not enough that we want to pay a mere dollar fifty for 12 ounces of java. We also want a container for the beverage that will outlive its usefulness after being in our possession for about 20 minutes. Most importantly, at this time of year we want as many of those containers as we can possibly get our hands on. All for the thrill embodied in the few seconds it takes to unroll the rim of a single-use paper cup, revealing "please try again".

I was once there. I no longer am. If I want excitement, I'll find it in performing a taiko (Japanese drumming) piece with my fellow students in front of a large audience. If I'm drowsy and need to perk up, I'll go for a brisk walk around the block. If I want a mountain bike, I'll save up until I can afford to buy one, then bring my business to a local bike shop. This year, it's not enough for me to avoid the cups by boycotting the contest; I'm going to avoid the coffee chain entirely, at least for the duration of the promotion - possibly longer. So I'd like to ask those of you who usually participate in this waste-producing event: will you join me in rejecting it?

Photo credits: cup on sidewalk, cup and ashtray, cups in grass.


  1. Thanks for bringing this up - never thought about it as I'm not a coffee drinker. You should email the company and see if there are any alternatives. Perhaps they could offer those who use their ceramic mugs or who bring a travel mug a scratch off card? Maybe encourage others to start a letter writing campaign. I just sent in one! : )

    Good topic Andrea!

    1. That's a really good Idea. I would love it if they offered something like this to people who brought mugs instead of buying the cups. I Think I'll send them an e-mail about this right now :).

  2. Good point. I looked up the online rules and regulations document and found the "no purchase necessary to play" statement. Apparently you can write to the coffee chain's head office to get a free contest cup and/or copy of the rules. In other words, the cup is absolutely necessary.

    The scratch-off card is a good alternative because it would use much less paper and is more readily recyclable than waxed paper coffee cups are. Still a bit of a waste, though.

    Thanks for writing a letter. I'll have to get a campaign organized well in advance of next year's contest!

  3. I will totally join you. I too, succumbed last year. Today I noticed a coworker with one of those cups, rolling up his rim right before he tossed it in the trash. This contest is almost a Canadian institution by now though, too bad it is based on making garbage! I will not roll any rims and will avoid that chain!!

  4. Thanks, Sherry! Spread the word!

  5. This has bothered me for years and I'd love to see a real campaign to urge them to stop. Coffee shops are such havens of waste anyhow--with so many people drinking out of "to go" cups as they sit in, etc. etc. But that contest is really the worst in its encouragement of waste!

  6. You're right, even without contests like these, coffee shops are huge waste generators. One of my biggest pet peeves is that customers are no longer asked if they are going to be staying, so as you pointed out, even those who will be sitting for half an hour end up with cups instead of mugs.

    If any of you come across others who are as fed as up as I am, please let know! I'm tired of complaining about this issue and would like to take real action.

  7. Both Starbucks and Second Cup give you a 10-20 cent discount if bring your own mug. So they should totally advertise that in big letters with a big sign somewhere. Or maybe, they should CHARGE customers more for a cup, more than the price listed on the board - similar idea to charging for plastic bags. Consumers seem only to do things when there is a financial incentive!

  8. Yes, the discounts are a good start. Actually, I was at a Starbucks recently and asked for my tea in a mug rather than a paper cup. Without announcing it, the cashier gave me the 10-cent discount. That was nice, but to reinforce my behaviour, he ought to have told me, right?

    I agree, charging more for single-use cups would be more effective. Those of us who use thermoses or ask for mugs don't need convincing - we don't need the 10-cent incentive. It's those who don't regularly engage in this behaviour that need to be given a good reason to switch. Like taxes, the fee should go on things we want less of: waste and environmental degradation.

  9. Here's the response I received:

    Dear G.S.,

    I would like to thank you for contacting our Head Office with your suggestion. We always appreciate hearing from our guests.

    Your comments have been forwarded to our Research and Development Department for review and consideration. It is through feedback from our valued guests, such as yourself, that we are continually able to grow as a company.

    Thank you again for contacting us and for your ongoing patronage. If you have any further questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact us. We appreciate your business and want to ensure we met your expectations.

    TDL Group Corp.


    I think if more people emailed them with the same concern - they would get the message loud and clear. : )

  10. It's a form e-mail, boo!! In other words, you'll get no follow-up on this. Ugh, corporations...

    I hate to sound pessimistic, but it will take more than a few dissenters for them to change their mind. After all, there are millions of customers who are all too happy to buy into this wasteful contest. The company can easily ignore us and still enjoy a huge profit margin. That's where a public campaign could do more good than letters sent privately (not that we should stop sending letters). We need to find a way to bring everybody together so that our voice is stronger, and if there's any way to get the media to pay attention, our message would reach more people.

    Does anybody have experience with this sort of thing? I could use some pointers. :)

  11. Thanks, I think I'll need it! :)

  12. I hereby pledge, from today until the end of the Roll Up to Waste contest, not to purchase anything from this particular Canadian Coffee company.

    I've always firmly believed in the power of voting by how you spend your money... and although it may only be a drop in an ocean of coffee consumers, we all have to start somewhere, right?

  13. Marc, thank you for joining me in my protest. Even if any one individual's impact is small, I too, believe it's important to vote with my dollars. In a city like Toronto, there are so many alternatives to corporate coffee chains that we have no excuse! I don't have to look far to find independent cafes that value the porcelain mug over the paper cup and don't need to resort to contests to increase their sales.

  14. Me again--I've written to Tim H as well... though I do agree Andrea, that it takes more than that. Over at No plastic project we're already engaged in a campaign/petition on Ontario fruit in plastic packaging (as you know), but I'm not exactly optimistic. If you come up with anything, though, keep us posted because I'll certainly do my part. I think you're right: the key is getting media interested, so it requires a bit of lateral thinking... Someone recently told me about ppl in an office who collected all their plastic coffee lids from TH and made something out of them, and then tried to take it back--but TH wouldn't have it back. Maybe public garbage art would be a media attention grabber?

    Our petition has worked better than I expected (we have nearly 1000 signatures, which considering our total lack of networks and experience, is something!) But I think you need more than that... though I have no brilliant ideas!

  15. I'm really supportive of the No Plastic Project and hope that my readers will sign the petition!

    As for getting media attention, I remember a thought-provoking display in the lobby of the University Community Centre at the University of Western Ontario: a pile of used paper coffee cups and a sign that indicated how many were in the pile and where they came from. I think they only went through the garbage from the food court in that building, from one day! It was a huge pile. I'll try to get in touch with the environmental group at UWO that put up the display and see if their message got beyond campus.