Ditch the Disposables: Eliminating Paper Cups Review – Does it Work?

4 out of 5 leaves

4 out of 5 leaves

Disposable cups are a daily fact of life for many in the western world.  From the morning cup of coffee, to a break at the office water cooler, to a quick lunch or dinner out, our days can be filled with a procession of paper and plastic single use cups.  Each cup is used once, or maybe twice, and then discarded.  Some estimates put American disposable cup use at 58 billion annually.  American office workers average 2-3 cups per day.  Airline flights in the U.S. use 1 million disposable cups every six hours!  Mostly unable to be recycled, these cups head straight for the local landfill.  These numbers are staggering!  Is it possible for a typical American to give up disposable cups?  Are there reusable options for every occasion?

The Good

  • Better for the Earth – disposable cups are very resource intensive to manufacture, are generally unable to be recycled, and end up in landfills
  • Better for You – when you use your own cup, you tend to drink healthier liquids – like plain old water
  • Saves Money – often drinks in disposable cups are purchased, while drinks in refillable cups are not (sit-down restaurants and bars are an exception to this, of course)
  • Guilt free beverages for those of us who are environmentally attuned

The Bad

  • You have to carry a cup or water bottle everywhere you go
  • You have to REMEMBER to carry a cup or water bottle everywhere you go (it took me a couple of thirsty weeks to get this part down)
  • When trying to purchase a beverage with your refillable cup, it can take some explaining to get what you want
  • You have to wash your cup
  • Disposable cups are so prevalent and convenient, it’s hard to NOT use them sometimes

My Experience

Some of my favorite reusable cups. (No judging the fruit loops cup: it was a gift from my grandparents some 28 years ago and has followed me through life since then!)


About a year ago the maintenance guys at work installed nifty reverse osmosis water filters.  They give us fresh, tasty, clean water to drink all day long.  As I started to drink more water throughout the day (WIN!) I realized I was tossing a lot of paper cups.  I started using the same cup all day long, but knew I could do better.  I picked up a cute 20 fl oz cup at Target for $2 and it became a permanent fixture on my desk.

As I’ve been working at my wanna-be-crunchy lifestyle, I’m always looking for small changes I can make to have less of a negative impact on the environment.  “Ditching the Disposables” is one of them.  I decided that I want to work on phasing out the disposables in my life, starting with cups.  I decided to go hardcore and challenge myself to no disposable cups for a month to see how doable it was to completely ditch the cup habit.

The rules

  • I couldn’t use disposable cups for anything, ever.
  • If I forgot to bring a cup, I would have to go without.
  • If I wanted a fountain beverage, or other beverage that typically comes in a disposable cup, I had to convince the vendor to serve me in the cup I brought.
  • Single serving beverage containers like cans or bottles were okay only if I ensured they were recycled after use.

Challenge Results

Overall the month of no disposable cups went pretty well.  I was already using my cup at work for water, and brought in a mug from home for when I wanted hot tea.  For going out I stashed a handled mug with a lid in my purse, and generally just filled it up with water.  It took me a couple weeks to remember to always have it with me, however, so there were several times when I went thirsty while out at lunch.

The big win for the month was that I saved a total of 31 cups.  (Actually a pretty low number, considering I’m an office worker, who also eats out a couple times a week).  There was also a fun moment when I decided while out that I wanted to purchase a lemonade to go with my burger at a local place. Trying to explain what I wanted went something like this:

Victoria: I’d like a lemonade, but can I have it in this cup (holding up cup from purse)
Cashier: What?
V: I’d like to have your lemonade in my cup.
C: You still have to pay for it…
V: Of course!  I just don’t want to throw out a cup.
C: Oh yeah!  That’s a great idea!  Thanks!
V: Great!
C: You’re total is.xxxx.  (Hands me a paper cup).
V: ??  No, I don’t need this. I’ll just use my cup.
C:  Right!  Sorry – it’s automatic, I guess!

There were a couple fails too.  In total, I ended up using 5 disposable cups during the month.  One was at church where I always get a cup of water from the coffee station before the service.  It so automatic that it wasn’t until the second Sunday of the month that I even realized I was doing it.  Oooops!  Another time, I was at a professional baseball game.  It was a hot day, and I couldn’t skip the liquids.  There were bottles of water, but no place to recycle them that i could find.  So I opted for a paper cup that could be refilled with a flavored beverage as needed.

Early in the month I was at a baby shower, and they were serving drinks in beautiful plastic cups.  It was another hot summer day, and I had forgotten my cup once again…  I noticed, however, that the hostess was washing the cups and reusing them, so I thought maybe it didn’t count as a disposable after all…  At the same time, I resolved myself to not let my cup ever leave my purse again!

Finally, on the lat day of the month, a dear friend at work saw me seriously dragging (1st trimester exhaustion) and brought me half her bottle of soda in a paper cup.  I was so thankful for her kindness and that small amount of caffeine, that I took the cup without hesitation, and without comment.  This crunchy living stuff is important to me, but people and relationships are more important!!

Overall, I found it quite doable to ditch the disposable cups.  I had trouble at first remembering to  bring a cup along with me, but once I made it a habit, I sailed through the rest of the month.  It felt good to know I was not contributing more to the landfill problem. By the end of the month, I decided I needed one of those nifty water bottles everyone seems to be carrying around these days.  If I make it a habit to carry a bottle of water with me, needing a drink with a disposable should never be a problem again!

Have you ever tried giving up disposable cups?  Do you have any good water bottle recommendations for me?

This post was featured on the Homestead BarnHop Hosted by The Prarie Homestead!


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31 Responses to Ditch the Disposables: Eliminating Paper Cups Review – Does it Work?

  1. JM says:

    Yes! We’ve been trying to encourage this at work, but the biggest obstacle was actually that people said their coffee didn’t taste the same when it was served in a reusable cup…. Good for you, and I bet your example will inspire coworkers to make the switch as well! I love my Thermax mug – it doesn’t leak at all, even when I toss it in my purse on its side. It does it’s job so well, in fact, that I’ve had to occasionally ask someone else to open it when it suctions shut. I’ve also found that I get fewer stares when I ask for a beverage in one of those plastic cups that looks like a disposable one (not sure if they have a name?) since a lot of chains sell them already. I found mine at Grocery Outlet 😉

    • Victoria says:

      I’m not a coffee drinker so I didn’t know that it tastes different in the disposable cup. I guess people like the taste of a slightly melted waxy liner? Hee hee!

  2. Sara says:

    Here in Australia came out as a “fashion trend” a couple of years ago. There are a lot of different reusable cups you can buy. The most common ones are this: http://uploads.notempire.com/images/uploads/Picture_1-1323.jpg which is completely in hard plastic and this: http://thegreenmomreview.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/reusable-coffee-cup.png which is in ceramic. Both have a silicon sleeve for hot beverages and a silicon lid. I found that, being heavier than the older ones (http://rlv.zcache.com/tigr_reusable_travel_mug-p168596577641516603b2ooi_400.jpg), you can’t actually fail to notice if you don’t have it in your bag (the ceramic one, especially!). In some bars you also receive a 20 cents discount if you bring your own mug 🙂
    The same concept of “my bag is too light today, what have I forgotten?” goes for water bottles. While the common plastic ones (http://www.vincent.wa.gov.au/files/9b1aa2c9-c5a8-4b3d-b852-9f1600bf367c/reusable_water_bottles_002.jpg) are lightweight when empty, the steel ones (http://livingedgeblog.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/picture-31.png?w=480) are heavier (and you can also attach them to your bag ;)).
    Lately I’ve also seen these around: http://assets.inhabitat.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2011/10/bobble1-537×389.jpg with a filter if you don’t like the idea of plain tap water.

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for all these great links Sara! Here in Los Angeles it is also quite fashionable to carry around your own water bottle everywhere, but I have no idea on which ones are any good.

      • Sara says:

        I bought a stainless steel one in one of those $2 shops for $4 and it comes with an insulating cover to keep the drink cold or hot. And, as I said, they are heavier than the plastic ones, so it is harder to forget them 🙂

  3. Rachel says:

    I usually have a mug on my desk at work that I use for tea every morning and I have a large water bottle that I carry around. I didn’t plan on making it a habit to use reuseable cups, but we don’t have any disposable cups at my office, so it was necessary for me to bring my own from home. I try to remember to bring a travel mug on the few occasions I get coffee in the morning, but I often forget because it’s only about once a week. So I’d say about 4-6 cups per month isn’t bad!

    Love the Fruit Loops mug! 🙂

    Have a great week!

    • Victoria says:

      No reusable cups at the office is a good plan! I worked in a department once where they gave everyone a ceramic mug, and that was the end of the discussion. If you wanted coffee, yu brought your mug. I wouldn’t be surpised if disposables start disappearing at my office soon due to budget cuts!

  4. 'Becca says:

    I keep my disposable cup use low–a single-digit number per month, definitely. We always bring our travel mugs on road trips. We’ve encountered a few restaurants where they serve your drink for you and refuse to use a reusable cup “because we can’t guarantee it’s clean, so we don’t want the liability if you get sick from it.” I see their point, but it’s annoying.

    JM wrote:
    people said their coffee didn’t taste the same when it was served in a reusable cup
    Yeah, it doesn’t taste like yummy endocrine disrupting chemicals! D’oh!

    In my office everyone who makes coffee at work uses real mugs, but a lot of them are making the coffee with a Keurig machine that uses a little disposable multi-layered plastic cup of coffee grounds. I hate seeing the waste from that! I use a percolator, which has all reusable parts and no plastic touching my coffee. It’s easy to use and clean and makes good coffee.

    • Victoria says:

      They don’t want the liability of you getting sick from your own germs? Sheesh!
      I dind’t think about the Keurig waste. We have one in our office too. Do you get as annoyed as I do sometimes about our wasteful convenience culture?

      • Kim Uyyek says:

        I bought an Ekobrew http://www.ekobrew.com/wp/ for the Keurig in the staff lunch room. I use it and of course, my own cup, for coffee. It is not quite as convenient as popping in a K-cup, but so much more earth-friendly.

        • Victoria says:

          I wasn’t aware of the Ekobrew. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing, Kim!

          • Rene S says:

            I have the Ekobrew and it’s great! It gets much higher reviews than the Keurig equivilant. Been using it about a year and it’s holding up well.

  5. Regan says:

    Our company supplies a cabinet full of mugs/glasses, plates, silverware, etc. in the breakroom for employees. Everyone just has to load their own dishes in the dishwasher, which is tough to remember for some people and they leave them in the sink (much like at home!). So we don’t use disposables here for the most part.

    I started reading this and thought to myself, “I don’t ever use disposable cups”, then remembered, “what about the coffee shop?” Doh! Like you said, it’s so automatic that I didn’t even think about it at first. I’ve tried to cut out the run to the coffee shop altogether ($$), but I still indulge occasionally (maybe twice a month). I often get disposables with fast food lunches though (which I should start cutting down on…).

    Here’s a good water bottle that I recommend. http://shop.flylady.net/pages/FlyShop_swbboth.asp
    It is stainless and dishwasher safe. It has a wide mouth so that you can fill with ice, a small mouth to drink from, is double walled so it keeps cold ALL day and so it doesn’t “sweat” inside your purse. Also, it helps support a very worthwhile cause – keeping the FlyLady website info. free for everyone!

    • Victoria says:

      That’s a great idea to have a stocked kitchen with dishwasher. We have a sink in the kitchenette, but everytime anyone leaves a bottle of dish soap or a sponge for folks to use, the cleaning people make it disappear overnight. Very frustrating!

  6. Dea says:

    I don’t drink coffee, so that’s never a problem. My soda…well I try to buy in 2 liter bottles and refill a 1 liter. In Oregon water bottles and soda bottles/cans have a deposit on them, so I re-use/recycle I buy large 52 oz fountain drinks occasionally which come in heavyweight plastic refillable cups. I take them home, wash them and use them when camping. I also drill holes about the sides about 1″ up and grow rose slips and small trees in them until ready to plant in the ground. Not deleating the USE, but working real hard on re-use/recycle.

    • Victoria says:

      Great ideas – thanks for sharing Dea!

      • DEA says:

        well, here’s an update. I no longer buy soda…not even in 2 liter bottles. I have kept some heavier plastic drink bottles from the past, and I refill with water from my well. I also save some of the juice bottles (1 gal.) for water in the fridge. I re-used the fountain drink cups for the 3rd year this spring…still in good condition. (which is a good thing as I no longer drink soda) All other bottles get recycled.

  7. I haven’t done what you have done but we try to use very few disposable cups. As a general rule, I don’t buy them and we use our reusable bottles on the go, for sports, school, etc. The one place that I haven’t really but much thought into it is at a restaurant. But now I will. 🙂

  8. Nancy says:

    I do use disposable cups for the lye crystals when I’m making soap (for obvious reasons,) but otherwise, we don’t use them here at home. It’s amazing how many a person uses when not thinking about it.

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Nancy – the only time we use disposable cups at home is when having a party or other large gathering of folks. Then we get plastic and are sure to recycle.

  9. Marcie says:

    I just moved to a bigger ‘city’ where my trash cans are about half the size of my small town trash can was. I’m learning very quickly I must be ‘greener’ to survive here! Love your ideas and would love for you to link this to my Homemaking Party :).

    • Victoria says:

      Smaller trash cans are a great idea. I live in a big city and our trash cans are ginormous! (But our recycle bins are even bigger).

  10. Britni says:

    This is awesome! And I love the story about the cashier, too funny 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing at my Throwback Thursday party, I’d love to see you again this week!

  11. Great ideas! We long ago stopped using anything disposable in our home, and I do take a cup with me most times, but there are some times that I don’t use it (such as if we go to a restaurant…that’s a great idea to still use your own cup!) Also, I’ve been known to take home plastic bottles just for the purpose of recycling them! lol.

    And, glad to hear that you used the paper cup that your friend brought you! Gave me warm fuzzies, because I think a militant attitude in the face of kindness is something that could turn people off to ideas and values before they ever even consider them.

    Great post 🙂

  12. Courtney says:

    Ah! Had I known about your ‘non-disposable cup month’, I would have filled your pretty Target glass with pop! Now I know!


  13. I really enjoyed this post! In fact, I liked it so much that I chose it as my featured pick for tomorrow’s Barn Hop. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  14. You did a great job getting rid of disposable cups. My problem is with water bottles. I always forget to use a cup. I may try what you did with water bottles. Thanks for the info. Thank you so much for sharing with Wednesdays Adorned From Above Link Party last week.
    Have a great week.