The Missing Forest - a community-based and strategic approach


(For people arriving directly at this page, the problem is the 58 billion paper cups that are thrown away and can't be recycled each year, according to BetaCup.  I understand this equates to 20 million trees a year).

There needs to be a plan for what to do that is supported by communities across the world.

                 - Can you help by commenting on the rough idea for a plan below, once you've read it?
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                 - Would you know someone who could draw pictures about this idea?

The actions I propose are:

- Finding "pilot" towns, city areas, villages or university or corporate campuses which will become "paper-cup free".  These will put in place a simple plan for how to reduce waste from coffee shops, and perhaps fast food outlets, which will be backed up with a local campaign to make sure it has the support of locals, using volunteers.  It will link to local democracy.  It will also link to the people who own the places where coffee shops are - e.g. train stations.

- There would be learning from what works in these pilots, and national campaigns could then be set up, with a few partner organisations such as Friends of the Earth and the National Trust in the UK, which have many many members.  The Sierra club could be a partner in the US - it has 1.3 million members. In my view the campaign should also link to reductions of bottled water use and plastic bag use.

- Incentives should be provided by coffee companies not to use paper cups.  A nudge in the right direction would be to charge say 10p extra for a paper cup, rather than giving 10p off for people reusing cups.

- Promotions to give away high quality reuseable mugs - so you would have a card stamped and get a free reuseable mug with 10 or 15 stamps. A parallel is "bags for life" in the UK.

- A design of a reusable cup that is lightweight, cost effective and pleasant to use.  More on this at the end.


- Customers can drop off their reusable cup to be washed when they next order a coffee.  There could even be standard designs used across different coffee and fast food outlets within a locality.

Government's role

- The intervention of local or national governments to tax paper cups, similar to the plastic bag tax in Ireland, which reduced plastic bag usage by 90%.  On the one hand, tax can be seen as reducing people's freedom, on the other hand, a major reason why the majority of people use paper cups is that there is no cost to us of doing so, and we are not therefore "paying" for the unnecessary environmental damage that we are causing.

The first step towards this could be trying to introduce a bill for legislators - in the UK we have private members' bills and early day motions, that highlight small causes but may not be passed.  These can raise awareness, and public officials will be allocated to deal with the issues they raise.

Challenging the coffee corporates to do better

There should be a public "challenge" to major coffee companies to reduce paper cup consumption by say 10% per "average customer" year on year. They should also be asked whether they will publicly commit not to lobby against environmental reforms in their sector.

Getting the message out

Awareness campaigns should partly focus on the huge negatives - coffee cup litter,  the coffee cup mountain, cups half-filled with cold coffee and cigarette butts left perched about the place that you can knock over and spill on yourself, the source of the wood used and the impact on wildlife and communities, problems with landfill etc.  The problem should be given an emotive name, such as the coffee cup mountain, the missing forest, or coffee cup pollution.

It could be implied that once there are decent savings to be made from reusing your cup, and it is easy to do so, people who don't save money on their coffee by reusing their mugs are being thick as well as environmentally irresponsible.

The story of how coffee cups are made, whether they are shipped around, and where they go after use should be produced in a short film.

But the solution should be upbeat and aspirational.  "This is not/I am not a paper cup" should be one of the messages - preferably with the involvement of the designer(s) who coined the phrase.  And I have seen research reported suggesting that people do like to advertise their green credentials in public, so a take-away cup is ideal to do this - but the current travel mug is currently not such a "symbol" or advertisement.

I myself am not against coffee houses - they are great places to hang out, there's a sense of community there,  and I do love Starbucks, especially now that I can get fairtrade coffees there.

I would also note that Starbucks products such as premium instant coffees could help if people switch to making one of those at home in the morning, or a decaf one at work, and then use a ceramic mug when they visit their Starbucks branch.

The design of a great reusable cup:

My view is that there should be three elements to the cup, which would resemble the paper cups currently used.

1.  A silicone lid which resembles a plastic cup lid.  This has been produced on the existing "I am not a paper cup" UK product.

2.  A silicone sleeve.  This resembles the paper sleeve commonly used, and allows the walls of the cup to be hot, and therefore thinner, lighter and cheaper.  The silicone sleeve could be branded with the logo of the coffee shop, or a campaign such as the RED campaign.

"This is not/I am not a paper cup" message would be incorporated into the design of the lid or main container.

The lid and sleeve are likely to be personal to the consumer.

3.  Unlike the current "I am not a paper cup" product, the cup itself would not be made out of ceramic, which I feel is too heavy and expensive, plus the potential that it could get broken.

One option would for it to be made out of hard plastic.  I don't know whether it could be recycled plastic?  And it would be stackable - you could call it a plastic beaker.

The second option would be that it could be made out of silicone.  The design would be similar (perhaps licensed from) the Sea to Summit X Mug, which folds flat after use.  It may have a rigid hard plastic base like the Sea to Summit X Bowl, to improve safety.  The form of a folding silicone mug may be wider than a traditional paper cup, and customers may not be able to buy very large quantities of coffee in one.

The cup itself, whether hard plastic or silicone, has the potential to be owned by the coffee house - you simply return it when you next get a coffee, and the cost/deposit is automatically taken off your bill.

Would there still be disposable cups?  Maybe a few.  There are existing solutions such as compostable cups, and they should be adopted - perhaps it's the cost that's the issue?

Please do leave a comment if you think that any of these ideas are worthwhile - it would be great to hear from you!

The small print

Where the ideas for this submission have come from:

I looked briefly at two or three current submissions, including one for a collapsible mug. 

I have been very influenced by the first edition I am not a paper cup, which I own, and the X-mug and X bowl which I own.  The "I am not a paper cup" concept must have been influenced by the "I am not a plastic bag" who's (UK-based) designer is Anya Hindmarch.

I have been involved in national and grassroots campaigns for change.

Other duplications of existing ideas are coincidental - in particular, I have not looked at submissions on social messages or any submissions related to campaigns, local democracy or incentives to customers.