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How do you take it?

As a landscape photographer, I do my best to keep stray people and power lines out of my shots. It's part of the pleasure and challenge of composing a great image. I do think, however, that I shouldn't have to worry about how to keep stray garbage out of the shot! This photo was taken at the Badlands, where the problem was really serious: in a hour's walk around the site, I must have seen 30 discarded coffee cups, not to mention beer cans, cigarette butts, and other trash. Many of the cups were from out national coffee chain, Tim Hortons, a company that proudly trumpets its presence in every community as evidence of its patriotism. The restaurants are one thing, but papering the landscape with their containers is quite another.

The Italians think the North American habit of drinking coffee on the run is pretty sad. They drink theirs from a proper ceramic cup, sitting or standing in a coffee bar. It's a proper break. But, they would be horrified by our contamination of their classic caffeine conveyors: a low-fat, soy, decaf sweetened with agave isn't really a latte at all.

I don't actually drink coffee: hot chocolate and tea are my warm drinks of choice. But, I did some research and found thousands of blogs and pages of research dedicated to building a better, more recyclable, coffee cup. If you can't sit in the cafe and drink your coffee calmly, from a reusable cup or mug, then what can you do to avoid contributing to the huge landfill problem created by discarded cardboard cups? I am going to assume that readers of this blog are not responsible for the blighted landscape problem created by littering the countryside with garbage....

The problem with cardboard cups is not the cardboard, it's the thin layer of plastic required to line it so the cup doesn't disintegrate when filled with liquid. Plus, the plastic lids required to keep the coffee from sploshing out and burning the consumer. People generally think that the paper cups are recyclable or compostable and throw them into the recycling bin or the green bin. In most places, however, this is not true. It's too difficult to separate the plastic liner from the cardboard, so the cups go into landfill. And that's not the end of the problem. As we've reported before, plastics never leave us. Some of them do break down in the ground, and can therefore be called "biodegradable," but what this means too often is that they break down into microscopic pieces which then leach into ground water and often, eventually, into bodies of water where they are absorbed by fish and birds.

There are biodegradable plastics used for some kinds of drinking cups, but they are often made of corn fibres and fields of corn grown for bio-fuel or food packaging that displace other, food crops, are not ideal either.

And then there are foam cups. We usually call them "Styrofoam," but this is actually a brand name for a kind of foam that is used in craft and building supplies. (It's the stuff that squeaks and breaks down into little beads.) Food and drink containers are made of polystyrene. Strangely, it takes much less energy and water to manufacture polystyrene than it does to manufacture printed cardboard, and many municipalities can now recycle polystyrene, so it can be the better choice.

The best choice, however, is a reusable cup or mug that you can take with you. Consumers want something that won't break, that fits into a bag, that is comfortable to drink from, and that doesn't make the contents taste weird. Oh, and preferably something made without BPAs and that doesn't exude estrogen-like substances.

Reusable cups were the norm at public water supplies until the early 20th century when Dixie cups made their appearance. Touted as the healthier alternative, they eventually became standard at water coolers everywhere. And, they made countless design statements in mid-century American suburban bathrooms and kitchens!

Like paper cups for hot drinks, ones for cold drinks can't really be made from recycled paper either. But, at least, they can be lined with wax, which is safer and more disposable than plastic, making them recyclable.

If you have to enjoy your morning coffee on the road, please consider drinking it from one of the great reusable cups that are now available. And, if you need to use paper, don't treat the landscape like landfill.... Cheers!

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