Class has just ended, and with your half-empty coffee cup in hand, you slowly shuffle out of the crowded lecture hall and throw away the disposable cup in the closest recycling bin. This seemingly minor act happens numerous times throughout the day, and with nearly equal distribution of coffee cups thrown in garbage and recycling bins, it seems the incorrect action is likely due to a lack of understanding, rather than laziness or deliberate defiance. After all, the coffee cup is a paper product, and most lids have the small recycling logo we have all come to know. However, since the inside of each coffee cup is coated with a waxy film, it is actually not a recyclable item. Additionally, any lid, unless it is black, is recyclable. According to a 2016 statistic, the University of Guelph estimates that 25,000 coffees are purchased on campus each day, and many people opt to use disposable coffee cups in place of their own personal containers. With numbers this high for just the University of Guelph alone, it is easy to see how recycling material can be contaminated with disposable coffee cups, quickly causing a large-scale environmental problem for the nation.
Starting in Kitchener in the mid 1980s and spreading to the rest of Ontario in the early 90s, recycling was viewed as part of our collective responsibility as shepherds to the environment. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of environmental motivation and became burdened with the specificities of regulation. To properly dispose of a cup of coffee, the liquid should be poured out, non-black lids and cardboard sleeves placed in recycling, and the cup itself put in the garbage.
Have you ever stopped to consider the consequences of contaminating recycling with garbage? From a financial perspective, incorrectly sorted recycling is costly; garbage must be removed, often by hand. The city of Toronto alone estimates a cost of approximately $6 million spent in 2017 to remove garbage from recycling. However, from an ethical point of view, contaminated recycling is a form of accumulative harm. An individual act is not harmful, but combined with similar actions, the cumulative consequences are environmentally damaging. Incorrect disposal of a single coffee cup may not seem harmful, but when Toronto estimates that 52,000 tonnes of the recyclable content is in fact garbage, one wonders how much coffee cups contribute to that overall figure.
In the time that humans have been the dominant species, we have managed to dramatically alter the environment, in some cases, irrevocably. We have destroyed ecosystems, dislocated animals from their natural habitats, and caused climate change with our insatiable need for expansion to support our burgeoning population. The reasons in favour of proper recycling extend beyond financial burdens and accumulative harm and branch into environmental philosophy. With our modern western mindset, we largely treat the land as having only instrumental value as merely a tool used to serve us. However, in the spirit of reciprocal guardianship, we must take care of the earth in the same way that it looks after us. What right do we have do destroy other lives, habitats, and ecosystems to further our own agenda? We build our lives on the land that we callously poison with our waste and human-centered perspective. With these uncomfortable truths in mind, perhaps the only redeeming aspect is that even seemingly minor positive changes will benefit the environment. Yes, you have the need to recycle, but in this case, coffee cups belong in the garbage.