Hello, lover. Photo: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia. | CC BY SA 2.0

I love coffee.  Coffee and I are in a non-exclusive lifetime partnership.  When I’m traveling, and I haven’t seen a coffee shop in more than ten minutes, I start to sweat.

cup of coffee Hello, lover. Photo: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia. | CC BY SA 2.0

But like all long term love affairs, it’s complicated and things change.

Most coffee drinkers I know, be they bean purists or sludge-savoring populists like myself, are rigid adherents to a routine.  But even if I change one aspect of my caffeine ritual, I can have a big impact on the environment.

You’ve heard it all before. We are the coffee-lovingest country ever.  But it’s got an impact. We drink 146 billion cups of coffee a year. That generates 40 billion cups going to landfills. 25 billion of those are Styrofoam, 15 billion are paper cups that can’t be recycled because of the heat-sealed lining.

To put 40 billion in perspective, that’s like saying that 1/3 of the U.S. population drinks one cup of coffee in a non-recyclable cup every day during the year. Not so hard to believe, but all those cups put together pack a huge punch.

How can you curb the crazy amount of waste?

1. Rethink those coffee grounds. 

If you’re like me, you buy those big bags of coffee from the grocery store, to make at home when you’re too lazy to leave the house. But don’t just throw the grounds away when you’re done!

Coffee grounds can be used as a fridge deodorizer (let them dry out first), and in the garden as a natural deterrent to common pests.  Do you compost, darling?  Join me in a cup; coffee is très compostable.

2. Think about the impact your favorite coffee joint has.

Sure, your local Dunkin’ Donuts has great coffee snackage, but the Dunkin’ styrofoam cups are some of the least sustainable in the industry—and contain dangerous plastic additives that you can ingest with your morning cup of joe.

Starbucks does at least somewhat better, with their 10% post-consumer recycled paper fiber cups. They’ve had paper cups in their stores since 1984, which shows they’ve cared about my coffee’s environmental journey for at least a few years.

If you do buy a cup, reuse it if you can.  You can clean plastic cups for cold beverages to use at your next picnic.  And Styrofoam and most paper cups will hold up for another use—keep a few around for to-go cups when you leave your travel mug at the office.

3. What’s the best way to side-step the issue of recyclable/sustainable cups, at your favorite coffee stand?


Bring your own cup. 

Make it a habit by cleaning your coffee cup at work and leaving it in your car, or putting it next to your keys, handbag, or briefcase if you commute another way.

Several stores (Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts included!) give (small) incentives to customers who bring their own cups. I’ll take any discount I can!

4. Have a cache of reusable mugs at home? Use them for more than just taking up shelf space!

Give one of your extra mugs to your coffee break buddy and double your positive impact on the environment.

5. Get rid of those pesky paper filters.

Paper filters seem like a necessary expense to get your morning joe. But if you can find ways to go without, you’ll be saving a whole lot, in terms of waste and cash expenses!

There are other ways to keep the grounds out of your cup. Encourage your office or household to switch to French-press, which doesn’t require any filter. You could also swap to a reusable filter, which you can use for years.


Whether it’s sipping on the cup I make at home, a trip through the drive through on my way to work, or a walk to the nearby coffee shop on the afternoon, the decisions I make add up like calories in a frappuccino.

Coffee and I are in it for the long haul—it’s one thing I can always count on not to change.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t try something new with my coffee experience. I can introduce some sustainability into this routine. Isn’t variety how to keep the romance alive?

Speaking of which, I think it’s time for another cup.


Emily Rabbitt is a freelance and fiction writer in the Washington, DC, area. She is a Massachusetts native, iced coffee enthusiast, and marathon runner, and tries to be a good citizen of the planet. Follow her on Twitter: @rabbitterun.