Zooming Out

Visualizing the Lifecycle of the Disposable Coffee Cup

By Alyssa Anderson

Coffee is the liquid gold that oils America’s gears. In this meritocracy, time is money, and coffee is productivity. It stains every carpet in every office; it brews constantly across the nation. Good ol’ America, always in a rush, always on the go, nothing screams luxury more than a vessel of energy at our disposal – we can leave the house with nothing, have a cylinder of coffee delivered right to our palms, then after those 10-25 (depending on desired pace) glorious sips, we open our hands and let those paper cups slide right into the trash can. A reliable and non-committal morning routine, we are not only addicted to coffee but also to the convenience at which we attain it.

The coffee cup takes on an image of mysterious ephemeral beauty in our memories; we think of the feel of the smooth paper, of the intoxicating smell that escapes from the pill-shaped hole in the lid in a small stream of steam. We experience the cup of coffee for usually less than an hour. We might leave it on our desks and let the last few sips of coffee become an obsolete lukewarm puddle, or we could devour the goodness in less than ten minutes and ditch it on the next block. We leave them in our cars, we leave them on benches, in gutters, in taxis, on the subway. The convenient lightness of the plastic-insulated paper cup, the lid and the tiny plastic plugs that come with them, and the cardboard sleeves allow us to take them wherever we please, however far or wide. We also might not carry them far at all – often just the few steps between the counter at the shop and a table five feet away.

To contextualize the existence of any object, we must return to the basic rules of the universe. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This is enough to crush our illusion of the coffee cup’s ephemerality: when the liquid from within warms our hands, we have no impulse to look further than that moment and ignore all implications of where the cup came from or where it will end up. The First Law reminds us that this vessel did not fall from Eden into our transient possession, but is the result of various inputs. Raw materials enter complex, energy-intensive, inefficient manufacturing methods to be molded into our morning cup; paper from around the world and petroleum-based plastics morph into the vessels we toss over our shoulders after we’ve kissed it enough times. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed: the cup does not physically disappear once it leaves our visual landscapes. Although its role as vessel is officially over, it persists in all its matter as the disposable coffee cup. Its “innovative” makeup of both paper and plastic makes the cup nearly impossible to recycle, even though the charming paper leads consumers to believe otherwise – the cup rests in mountains of compacted garbage in landfill for the rest of its days, which could last hundreds of years. We, as the sole beneficiaries of this object’s existence, do not benefit for nearly long enough to rationalize the production process and arduous afterlife of the disposable coffee cup.

Throughout its history, we have aggressively dissociated the disposable coffee cup from both its means of production and its future as waste. We continue to remove these components of the story from our visual landscape: we see the untouched cups only in groups of 10 or 20 on the espresso machines of our coffee shops and hide the ex-vessels in covered bins and opaque trash bags. The pushed-away truths of the factory and the landfill never enter our sight and therefore are more convenient to overlook. By analyzing the disposable coffee cup as matter that can neither created nor destroyed, both as raw material and the refuse of society, we can no longer deny the longevity of these cups’ lifespans.

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Pre-Consumption: Raw Material and the Desire for Convenience

How did the quintessential disposable coffee cup achieve its perfect form? The perfect storm was brewing in the 20th century: a sanitation scare, a society on-the-go, accessibility to cheap materials and labor, and the capabilities of mass-production led to the development of our cup. The sudden necessity for single-use vessels sprung up after the rise of Germ Theory, and the soon-after horror of the Spanish Influenza., During the time of the temperance movement, everyone shared water from fountains or barrels by sharing a communal cup. As germ theory took hold, people realized that their customs of communal drinking involved mass-exposure to a melting pot of germs. Society required a solution to access clean drinking water that prevented neighbors from exchanging saliva. Enter Lawrence Luellen, a lawyer-inventor type from Boston—he developed the first disposable cup in 1907. This “paper cup—almost more of a paper bag at that point—…didn’t have to be shared, and…could be thrown away after use,” therefore mitigating the spread of germs. To solidify the fate of disposable objects, 1918 brought the Spanish Influenza into the picture; now, “a healthy fear of germs wasn’t just for hypochondriacs anymore” – it was a matter of life or death. Disposable cups grasped their hold in society as a manic obsession with sanitation swept across America. 

So now, coffee. While water is number one, a necessity to maintain life, coffee was (and still is) in a close second as far as liquids go—therefore, adaptations to the disposable cup had to made to accommodate hot drinks. The coffee cup that would uphold its shape and design into the 21st century took several developments to reach its peak trend. Before the sleek cups we know today, the cups of the past that held hot beverages “came with handles,” and were “obviously meant to mimic mugs.” as shown in the diagram on the left of Walter Cecil’s 1937 design (Figure 2). 

The design thought of everything. It included what its competitors forgot: a perfect nook for the nose to rest and not hit hard, hot plastic with every sip; a sheltered roof under which foam can gently rest undisturbed; a heat buffer between liquid and mouth, allowing coffee to cool as it is funneled from insulation to the palate across the plastic bridge of the lid. Soon, the Traveler lid was the only lid, so much so that it made the decision of material for us – would foam or paper cups follow us into the future? 

The solidification of the paper cup as the quintessential object of a coffee-drinking America occurred with the choice by Starbucks to follow Solo into the shining gates of lid heaven. In 1987, “the new owner of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, had to choose what sort of disposable to-go cups his stores would carry as they underwent massive planned expansion throughout the U.S.” – around the same time that the Traveler lid appeared on the market. Desiring the “sleek…[design and] functional” qualities of the Traveler lid, Starbucks needed a lid that would keep its foam high and its customers happy. 

Now that the lids and our paper coffee cups manufactured the perfect coffee experience, there was one more problem to solve that defined our coffee cup experience today: the unbearable heat that seeps through the cup. For a reason unbeknownst to man, coffee is served at the temperature of the sun. “In 1991, Portland, Oregon, dad Jay Sorenson… invented the Java Jacket, an insulated cardboard sleeve that slides over a paper coffee cup” after spilling “hot coffee on himself while dropping his daughter off at school.” Simultaneously, more and more insulation was being added to the typical paper cup design by manufacturers.

Now we have our prototype. We found the one, the recognizable cup that a barista leaves on the counter for us to snag as they call our name – we don’t even have to look to know it’s ours. We can imagine what it looks like, as it exists in its perfect form, so we don’t have to gaze at it as we consume it. It exists in our minds as instantaneous, as disposable: defined as an object “intended to be used once, or until no longer useful, and then thrown away.” Author Mira Engler in her novel Designing America’s Waste Landscape creates a scale for how we value our objects and surroundings: “durable objects and places are valuable, the transitory are valueless, and the negatively valued are rubbish.” The disposable coffee cups that we welcome into our lives for mere minutes or short hours exist as valueless. Our infrastructure allows us to gracefully make them disappear, and our value of them as transitory, meant to be disposed of, prevents us from feeling guilt or loss when we toss them. Although we call it valueless, the “25 BILLION cups” we use every year in America are made from raw materials and energy, all of which have intrinsic as well as ascribed social and monetary value. 

A lot goes into making this ephemeral vessel – a lot that we don’t see as consumers, most of which is lost in translation in the seeming simplicity and our transitory possession of the object and hidden by lack of exposure. As we can gather from the development of its design, the production of these coffee cups requires many different materials and many different machines. In one year, the production of our yearly 25 billion valueless vessels deforests and pulverizes “9.4 million trees” and uses 20.25 billion gallons of freshwater. While people around the world suffer from lack of access to freshwater, we watch 20,237,500,000 gallons wind down the drain in the form of valueless objects. 

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During Consumption: Mindless Blindness in Instant Gratification

We love our coffee, so we love our cups. We love the warm moments we can pick up on any block, the ability to “grab a cup” with friends on a whim. We love the convenience of disposable culture. We mindlessly hand over cash or card, or maybe a few quarters, in exchange for a paper cup filled with something that feels good for our mind, body, and soul. While the transitory nature of the disposable coffee cup renders it valueless, the associated culture usually carries weight – is it enough to validate the costly “life cycle of extracting raw materials, processing, manufacturing, transporting, using, and disposing of” these objects?

First, let us consider the cultural obsession with the “Anthora” cup, the cup that screams New York City. Its blue and white borrows its colors from the Greek flag, “and its type design distinctly recalls Ancient Athenian lettering.” The cup was the “first handleless paper to-go coffee cup,” which contributing majorly to the design of today’s average disposable coffee cup found across America. The cup “was designed by Czech-American immigrant Leslie Buck in 1963, who mispronounced the Greek “‘amphora,’ the two-handled Greek pitcher associated with the same imagery that appears on the coffee cup.” With its aesthetics embedded in Greek Classicism, it represents idealized perfect form – an invaluable trait to market a cup of steaming confidence. Not only does the Anthora sell coffee, but also the old New York laced with lively immigrant culture and community.

 

Marx’s commodity fetishism complicates the theory of the disposable coffee cup’s complete lack of value. As an object, it exists in our lives so that we can make it disappear. However, the cup is a commodity: it hardly represents the human labor or materials that went into it, but instead holds the value of convenience. Marx discusses the dissociation of material and labor from final product through analyzing a the production of a table: “Yet for all that [labor and transformation] the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” Our cup continues to be the pulp of trees cut down, the petroleum that formed the binding polyethylene, even though it is transformed into a clean-cut, hyperdesigned vessel. For all that, the cup remains transitory, valueless, disposable – but for a moment, it holds something else that makes us want it. It holds a value of fashion and culture, of belonging – as in the Anthora. It represents consumer values and status – the logos of local coffee shops, hand-stamped kitschy art, or the big green Starbucks circle. Although it is not a huge cost, we also pay for the cup when we buy coffee, even though we ask for a “latte” and not a “latte and one disposable paper cup.” 

We consume these cups at absurd rates – around 68.5 million per day; 95,000 per 2 minutes. The obscurity of the coffee delivered to us in disposable cups, completely ours to have and to hold and to rid of, not only dissociates the consumer from the lifecycle of the paper cup, but of that of the coffee itself. The fetishization of on-the-go coffee as an instinctual mindless pick-me-up removes not only all of the implications of the cup but of all the labor and social relations that went into the drink and the experience. “Think, for example, of the cup of coffee that you might have bought before sitting down to read this text. In that simple transaction, you entered into a relationship with hundreds of others: the waitperson, the owner of the coffee shop, the people working at the roaster, the importer, the truck driver, the dockworkers, all of the people on the ship that brought the beans, the coffee plantation owner, the pickers, and so on.” The coffee and the cup both seem to come to us from nowhere, from our very own magical, bottomless pots of gold from which we can scoop from at our leisure – both the coffee and the cups seem to be in limitless supply. In “The Lifecycle of the Disposable Coffee Cup,” the imagery of the endless stream of coffee coming from the heavens references the perfect convenience of coffee and its accompanying paper cup vessel, and how little work must be done to attain this luxury. 

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Post-Consumption: The Heterotopia of the Landfill

The last time we see our coffee cup, we drop it into some sort of receptacle that swallows it for us. That is where we say goodbye, and we expect it to say the same. We leave these cups behind, however, so they can only continue their lives on earth in pure purposeless misery, somewhere among the rest of the 728,000 tons of trash Americans produce every day. The cups tumble through inefficient transportation processes that ultimately throw them off at the last stop: the landfill.

We adopted the practice of gathering our trash into one consolidated resting place from the ancient Greeks in Athens. “One of their most copied innovations, the municipal dump” cleaned up the internal city while sanctioning off a specified location for the artifacts of their civilization: their waste. We do the same – remove our waste from where we live and breathe, dedicating acres and acres of vacant land to our refuse. A heavily ironic juxtaposition lies in the fate of the iconic Anthora cup – perpetually held in its slowly decaying existence in the dump designed by the Athenians. Our last goodbyes are not the end – “tens of thousands of years from now, plastic from billions of paper cups will lie undisturbed at the bottom of an abandoned landfill—by which time the Anthora design will be nearly as ancient, in relative terms, as the ancient Greek amphora designs that inspired it.”

We are a society in denial of the length of the lifecycle of objects that we design as disposable, as is evident in how we conceal the cups we leave behind. The Second Law of Thermodynamics contextualizes the incredibly prolonged death of the coffee cups: “the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time,…and the changes in the entropy in the universe can never be negative. Even though we no longer see these objects, they neither disappear nor sit harmlessly. As entropy takes its toll, as the materials of our once vessel slowly degrade, greenhouse gases are emitted and harmful chemicals released in the form of liquid. 

The landfill emblematizes the Foucauldian heterotopia. Foucault describes his heterotopia as a modern reaction to the “themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.” The suspension of objects in a wasteland; the representation of our crisis of hyperspeed production but snail-paced waste decomposition; the cycle of raw material to emitted gases and liquids back into the earth in the closed cycle of the universe; the accumulation of our past, of our history as consumptive and irresponsible beings. Here, we express “the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place.” The landfill is our perfect heterotopia: we place boundaries around it and contain our mistakes, hold them hostage. So, now that we know where the cup came from and where it will go, do we continue to sip our coffee and choose to ignore our compartmentalization of these ugly truths? 

The cup lives a long, full life – far longer than our own. We created this monster, “across the [complex, wasteful] life cycle of extracting raw materials, processing, manufacturing, transporting, using, and disposing of products.” We sip our coffee knowing that “products and packaging account for 44 percent of greenhouse gas emissions,” while we yell at people who drive their non-electric cars to work and take long showers. 

So…should we kick the cup?

 

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