Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The 'double-double' as ecological disaster

In eastern Canada there is a bizarre obsession with something called the “double-double”: a low-quality coffee mixed with the equivalent of two cream packets and two teaspoons of sugar. It is the drink of choice at Tim Horton’s donut shops, although you can order one at any of the fast food joints. A colleague who moved to Waterloo from Vancouver once asked me, “What’s with Ontarians and their Tim Horton’s double-doubles?” and I couldn’t provide an answer, though I understood the question perfectly. I lived on the west coast for several years, where Tim Horton’s is generally considered to be gas-station-quality coffee, and people are more likely to order coffee drinks other than double-doubles.

While I enjoy a daily cup of coffee or two (without sugar), I avoid fast-food coffee shops and their takeaway coffees for a simple reason: the double-double in a disposable cup is an ecological disaster, plain and simple.

Let’s start with the problem of waste. Each year about this time, Tim Horton’s runs a contest where you can roll up the rim of your disposable coffee cup to see if you’ve won a prize (most often a cookie or donut). Many of its competitors run similar competitions to keep up with Tim’s. Even if you’re one of the few people who actually goes into a shop and asks for your coffee in a china mug, you’ll be offered an empty cup so you can try to win a prize, after which the cup is thrown away. Most double-doubles are sold at the drive-through window.

Years ago I started walking stages of Ontario’s Bruce Trail, which runs 800km from Niagara to Tobermory, Ontario. One of the stages down by Niagara requires you to walk for several kilometers along the shoulder of a secondary road, as you connect from one section of trail to another. Although there was no Tim Horton’s in sight, as I walked I could see the roadside culvert was practically carpeted with Tim Horton’s cups and plastic lids that had been tossed from passing cars. I initially started trying to count them as I went along, but gave up when I hit triple digits in the first fifty meters. The usual Tim cups are brown, as are the lids, which made them less easy to spot, but the red contest cups stood out like rotting tomatoes. While there was certainly other litter in the culvert, most of it fast food-related, the Tim-litter was disproportionately represented.

A disposable coffee cup and lid are useful for the amount of time it takes to drink the coffee – on average, probably no more than a few minutes. If it’s tossed out the window, how long will it last in the environment? The paper component of the cup will likely breakdown over the course of years or a couple decades, leaving behind the thin film of plastic lining. The lid probably won’t ever decompose, though it may mechanically break down into smaller bits of plastic. A moment on the lips, a lifetime in the ditch. Think about it: centuries after the moron who chucked it out the window has died and been forgotten, the remnants of that double-double will still be fouling nature.

Even if we assume that the majority of takeaway coffees are not littered by the roadside, most cups and lids end up going to landfills, where they will be entombed for centuries, time capsules of a needlessly wasteful era future generations will likely wish to forget. Fast-food companies are good at proclaiming their commitment to environmental sustainability and waste reduction, but if you look at the details of their performance, you will be underwhelmed by how little packaging waste is actually diverted from landfills and recycled.

In one sense, I don’t blame fast food companies for selling double-doubles in disposable cups; they’re simply giving people what they want. Most people are too lazy to bring a reusable coffee cup with them, just as most people prefer to sit idling in their cars in the drive-through lane than to park and walk inside the store. It’s not the company that’s being stupid and lazy, it’s the consumer.

Waste production is only one part of the ecological disaster that is the double-double. Have you ever been to a plantation in the tropics where low-quality coffee beans are grown? I have. It’s not a pretty landscape. Coffee shrubs evolved as an understory plant that grows in and around the openings and fringes of forests.  The highest quality coffee beans – the ones not used in double-doubles – are ‘shade grown’; that is, the shrubs are cultivated in and around trees. This type of commercial coffee plantation tends to have relatively high levels of bidoversity and low levels of soil erosion, since it mimics the natural environment fairly closely. The low-grade coffee used in double-doubles is grown on shrubs that are planted as monoculture fields on land from which the other vegetation has been stripped away. Because the plant is growing under stress in the blazing sun, the coffee shrubs produce a disproportionate number of flowers and berries relative to foliage, and the result is that more coffee is produced per acre than on a shade-grown farm. Significant doses of chemical fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides are needed to keep the plants alive, and irrigation water often needs to be provided. Meanwhile, the exposed soil between the shrubs is easily eroded away, and native biodiversity plummets.

We don’t see the environmental damage done overseas when we buy a double-double. Even if we were all clearly aware of it, I suspect many people are too lazy to change their habits. Which is too bad, because not all cups of coffee are ecological disasters. A cup of fair-trade, shade grown coffee purchased from a locally owned and operated independent coffee shop and served in a reusable cup is a good thing for the planet. Here in Canada it helps support local entrepreneurship and minimizes waste, while overseas coffee growing communities get a fair price for their produce and a healthier environment in which to live. This is the exact opposite of the fast-food companies, who suck money out of your community to create wealth for distant shareholders, sell you low-grade coffee grown on a trashed landscape, and leave you to clean up the waste.

What can we do? Lead by example. Buy better quality coffee – if it’s shade grown, organic, and/or fair trade coffee, it will say so clearly on the label, and it will invariably taste better than the other stuff. Right now I buy my beans from Ten Thousand Villages, but there are plenty of other good choices out there. Brew your coffee at home and bring it in a flask, or buy it from an independent coffee shop, where you can ask the owner where the beans come from. Sit down and drink your coffee from a china cup or mug if you have the time, the way it was meant to be consumed. If you’re on the go, bring a reusable travel mug and clip it to your bag with a carabineer.* Ignore the silly rim-rolling contests; you have a better statistical chance of being run over on the sidewalk in front of the store than of winning the grand prize. Most of all, tell a friend, because friends don’t let friends drink bad coffee.

*To help my first-year environmental studies students get in the habit, I have the publisher (Nelson Academic) include a free travel mug with my course’s textbook. I would encourage other professors to do the same.

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