Hopefully many of you had the opportunity to stop by the Earth Day booths on April 22, participate in the discussion, and enter your guess for the prizes. Thanks to all who participated and congratulations to the winners. We only had space for one fact on the poster, “How many disposable coffee cups Canada uses each year”, but there are many more you may enjoy (read on!).
Before we start, there’s a problem. While facts and figures may be interesting, what do they really mean? Making these numbers mean something is one of the biggest difficulties in making sense of our impact and driving change. I thought about using pictures, which the artist Chris Jordan has done an amazing job of and I encourage you to check out (Have you ever wanted to know what one million plastic cups looks like, which is the number used on airline flights in the US every 6 hours? http://www.chrisjordan.com). I considered relating them to other figures, did you know Canada disposes of more coffee cups per year than there are people in China, and that’s just our mere 30 million people out of nearly 7 Billion on the planet? But in the end I decided to use the statistics on coffee to relate back to basic principles that are true throughout our lives. After all, it’s not just about coffee.
This first stat may surprise you. Coffee is the #2 traded commodity in the World. At this point you’re probably asking which is #1, the answer would be Crude Oil. Think about that for a minute, what we use crude oil for. Oil is everywhere, in our cars, in our power plants, in pipelines, refineries, tankers, and sand, and in this plastic keyboard I’m typing on right now, sitting in this plastic chair. There’s really only one use for coffee and 64% of Canadians say they drink it everyday, averaging 2.8 cups, with 88% saying they drink it at least once per week. Our individual acts, our morning routine, results in 2.25 Billion cups consumed each year worldwide.
–> Principle #1: In a Mass Society, nothing is insignificant
Coffee is not just a drink, a warm and pleasant routine, a break, or a comforting aroma. It is a resource, resources come from the Earth, and sometimes those resources come at the expense of other resources. If rainforests are removed to plant coffee, we lose natural filters, oxygen producers, habitat, biodiversity, and a complex ecosystem. For an example close to home, Canada’s boreal forest is estimated to have a living economic contribution of approximately $700 Billion dollars in services to the world each year (that’s 2.6 times the amount of spending on the Federal Budget).
–> Principle #2: Nothing is free, the environment has value
Brazil is one of the largest coffee producers in the world (nearly 40%). That means we are delivered coffee that is grown ~8000 miles from us (Toronto to Sao Paulo). The journey involves: trucks, cranes, ships, more trucks, packaging plants, people are every step (who also use transport to get to work, eat and likely have a coffee in the morning), more trucks to get to the building where we buy our coffee and the espresso machine used to make it. Someone had to make that espresso machine, deliver it, and power it. Someone had to produce that power and build the building that generates it. And so it goes on and on until we find everything is connected.
–> Principle #3: The world is complex, small acts have widespread impacts
How do we get our coffee? Well for many, it’s in a paper cup. In fact Canada produces 1.6 Billion Paper Coffee Cups per year, which takes 350,000 trees and 400 million gallons of water to produce. One study found that the city of Toronto produces 1,000,000 coffee cups per day alone. Not only do we consume the coffee, we consume all the materials and energy used to make the disposable cups.
Further, these cups aren’t typically from recycled paper due to health regulations. The old adage, “you need money to make money” could be translated to, “to use energy you need energy”, or “to use resources you need resources”, or “to drink coffee you need a cup”.
–> Principle #4: Consumption requires consumption
The average coffee cups is used for 10 to 15 minutes, after which it spends ~500 years in a landfill. Why? Paper cups are typically coated with a polyethylene or wax lining (to stop the liquid from seeping into the paper). Additionally, landfills are highly compressed, oxygen deprived environments, leading to the slow process of anaerobic (read: without oxygen) decomposition. This decomposition then produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 16 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
–> Principle #5: Convenience = Waste
So what can we do? First, you can choose to buy fair trade coffee, rainforest alliance, etc. These certifications ensure coffee farming is more sustainable. Next, carry a reusable mug. It’s a simple act that lets people know you care about the world you live in and has a meaningful impact on your environment. For every 10 cups you save, that nearly 1m2 of vegetated habitat potential. Don’t worry you are not alone, there are more and more people carrying their mugs every day. Next, try making your coffee at home or sit down and enjoy a mug. Use the coffee grinds to fertilize your plants or garden. Don’t use the single serving coffee makers. And if you do need to buy a coffee in a disposable cup, you can recycle them at UHN.
–> Principle #6: You can do something
This all gets to the heart of what kind of Earth we want to be. There is no us or them, no economy or environment, it’s all part of the same thing. The big question is ‘Will we sacrifice convenience for a better place and future in which to live, or vice versa?’