wellness.: Earth Day Forever, A Guide to Everyday Objects and Their Greenness in Coffee Culture.

earth day forever

contributions by cnl

There seems to be endless ways to protect Mother Earth. So many that the idea and even the subject can be daunting. But should such an enormous field of knowledge stop us, the culture from taking our own steps, small and determined to know more, be more for Mother Earth. I say, ‘no.’. While I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about pursuing a more green earth, or even green-ing my routine – is that a word – I do believe in consciousness. I believe in walking in it, with it, allowing it and aligning with it.

I attempt when I go out, to always choose paper when I’m shopping at the market, if I’m not bringing my own bag; I opt for ceramic at the coffee shop unless paper is the only default, that way I avoid a lid and paper waste. I don’t order a lot of ice coffee which I know often comes in a plastic cup, but I’m determined to be more conscious about these containers before ordering ice, asking about their recyclable/composting feasability and having it in glass to stay.

The earth exists every day. As such, its my duty and perhaps yours if you take responsibility as a consumer to make a step in a small way, in a coffee way for the culture and preservation of our planet, today and now.

Here, at The Coffeetographer, we decided to provide a definition of terms often associated with preserving our environment and nurturing Mother Earth. Then we looked at those terms to see how they affect our environment. Finally, we assessed if these things we often interact with in coffee shops were recyclable or compostable. We don’t know it all, and correct us if we curated or have spoken to any of these things in error. For now, this is our start.

1. Recycling

Recycling means to treat or process things to reuse. Materials like glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles, and electronics can all be recycled.  There are many other materials that can be recycled. To see these, check out our recycling search to learn more.

2. Biodegradable

Compostable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing. Biodegradable products don’t need oyxgen to break down. On its own, a product turns into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass within a reasonable amount of time. It takes some plastics up to 1000 years to break down. Err… lets not have these in our lives as best we can. Reusable bags are a good start especially when shopping.

3. Composting

Compostable means it breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate similar to paper and breaks down into small pieces in about 90 days, so that you don’t even recognize the original compost, and it leaves no toxic residue.

Look for products packaged in compostable containers. For instance, we use compostable coffee filters so that we can just throw the coffee and the filter right into the compost bin. We don’t have to mess with all the grounds, dumping them then throwing the filter away. You can even get compostable drinking cups. Just do a search for “compostable” on Amazon and you can see just how many products there are.

Second, we take a look at common items one can find within the context of a coffee shop and define them. What are they? How do they generally affect our environment? How compostable/recyclable is it?  


Definition: Used to transport beverages.

How glass affects the environment: The combustion of natural gas/fuel oil and the decomposition of raw materials during the melting of glass leads to the emission of CO2. This is the only greenhouse gas emitted during the production of glass.

Glass is a resource efficient material which is made of abundant natural raw material such as sand and glass waste (cullets). Glass is a fully recyclable material that can be recycled in close loop over and over again. Lets hear it for the glass.

This is particularly true for glass bottles which on average have a recycling rate varying from 50% to 80%. Thanks to glass recycling, significant amounts of raw materials are saved and natural resources are preserved. Glass recycling also helps in saving energy as cullets melt at a lower temperature than raw materials. Consequently, less energy is required for the melting process.

Glass is not compostable, but, yes it is recyclable in the US. Glass Alliance Europe.


Definition: Used to temper the heat of a hot beverage and to facilitate a good grip on the cup.

How it affects the environment: My point for doing the research in the first place was because I didn’t realize that nearly all paper cups have a thin plastic (polyethylene) lining inside of them, which is to keep the cup from falling apart (think coffee).  Surprisingly, even a great deal of the “cold cups” have a liner too.

I know from experience that it’s difficult to use a bioplastic cup with hot liquid in it…the cup falls apart pretty quickly.  But I also know that it’s possible to use a paper cup with a PLA (polylactic acid, a compostable plastic) liner with good results.  How about a doubly thick paper cup with wax?

What is the best solution if you have to use a paper cup?  Paper cups can go in the compost pile no problem, just don’t expect them to come out for a while, and they’ll remind you that you put them in there by leaving behind a plastic skeleton.

The other option is to “recycle” the paper cup, which is more commonly done than composting.  In recycled paper processing mills, the slurry from a pulper is screened to remove plastic, ink, clay, dirt, metals, etc from the paper.  Therefore, the cup’s plastic liner is considered a contaminant.  What happens to this sludge from here? A good guess is that it’s either burned or landfilled…great.

Recyclable, possibly compostable. Think twice about paper, although it can still be quite nice.


Definition: a material that’s synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and so can be molded into solid objects. Used for silverware.

Truth be told, plastic plates and silverware (labeled with #6 underneath as their resin identification code) are recyclable, and many curbside recycling programs accept them along with other types of plastic, but many don’t, and that’s because it’s simply not cost-effective. Plastic is a petroleum product and is not compostable but yes, recyclable in the U.S.


Definition: used for holding hot beverages.

How they affect the environment: Styrofoam is not recyclable in city waste programs. There are sometimes special facilities that will repurpose the material but not every municipality has one nearby. Styrofoam will not break down like organic items. And get this, it is not good for your health.  A plastic polystyrene leaves “trace amounts of styrene as well as various chemical additives in polystyrene migrate into food, which increases significantly in hot liquids,” explains Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org). “

Plastic while compostable, but may be hazardous to living organisms. Many waste management facilities have styrofoam recycling facilities. You can also send it to the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers where it will be cleaned and reused. More drop off locations can be found at foamfacts.com.

Read more a in depth here Composting Styrofoam – Can You Compost Styrofoam ?

5. Cup Lids

Definition: Used to maintain the temperature of a hot beverage.

How they affect the environment: Most juice and coffee cup lids are extremely toxic since they fall in the 6 and 7 classes of plastics. As such, one must never heat them or even sip from them. Fortunately, however, there are better alternatives made from Grade 5 polypropelene plastic. All said and done, it goes without saying that the best option is a china or glass cup.

To elaborate further on coffee cup lids, the problem lies in the fact that almost all of them cannot be recycled, and that they can also leach dangerous toxins in the coffee. The plastic lids are made of polystyrene, a Grade 6 plastic which is the denser form of Styrofoam.  This component can not only leach harmful chemicals that mimic hormonal action into food, but also increase cancer risk.

Biodegradable coffee cups lids are present in the market, but most retailers or coffee shops don’t use them. The best solution in this case is to avoid the lid altogether when you buy your beverage. Another option is to use a reusable stainless steel mug that has a Grade 5 low-leaching and recyclable plastic lid.

Plastic lids are not compostable. Earth friendly material cup lids can be compostable.

6. Straws/Stirrers

Definition:  A straw has two openings to allow the heat to escape from the beverage and to sip beverage without burning the mouth. A stirrer is used to mix additional ingredients in a beverage.

How do these affect the environment?

Although metal spatulas are damaged through everyday use and become discolored and corroded by chemical exposure, plastic drinking straws are inexpensive, sterile, and disposable, reducing the risk of cross-contamination during laboratory procedures.

Drinking straws are also useful because they come in a variety of sizes; narrow sample containers such as NMR and EPR tubes can easily be filled using small diameter coffee stirrers, whereas bulk material can be transferred using larger drinking straws. Several types of drinking straws and coffee stirrers were cut at various angles and the amount of material picked up in a single scoop was massed 30 times. Standard deviations of the 30 measurements per straw indicate that approximately the same amount of material will be transferred each time by the same operator. Journal of Chemical Education 

Plastic straws are not compostable. Silicon straws are biodegradable and compostable. Know your straws and mind what you sip through.