What to do about billions of paper coffee cups is a burning issue – with at least one simple and obvious solution, says Peter Knight

Fashion futurologists take note. The US city that has nearly bankrupted itself in a bid to build a state-of-the-art trash incinerator and the rising tide of unrecyclable Starbucks paper cups could influence the way we dress and drink.

There are three elements that make up this story: trash, coffee cups and style. Let’s start with trash.

Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania, was once a proud, prosperous city that made big things out of steel. The Hershey chocolate empire grew up here, and the city brewed excellent beer. It is remembered for the nearby Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the nearest America came to a nuclear meltdown. It also has a problem with its trash incinerator.

Because this nation is so vast and has dug so many holes in the ground, there are relatively few municipal incinerators – about 90 in a country of 308 million people known for their throw-away lifestyle. Early incinerators were shut in the 1970s because they were so polluting. Harrisburg had one of the stinkers, but its city fathers saw its potential.

Landfill was becoming more expensive and politically unacceptable, they thought. They would convert their old puffer to something Zurich would be proud of, using the best European technology to catch the dioxins and other combustion nasties. It would also make electricity and hot water for district heating – a true waste-to-energy plant making money at every turn: fees to burn other cities’ trash, and revenue from the electricity and heat.

All they needed was a loan. This is when things started to go wrong. The city raised the necessary funds by issuing bonds. Municipal bonds are considered one of the safest investments because municipalities never default, having the capacity to tax their residents for any shortfall.

Unfortunately, the company they chose to upgrade the incinerator burned through the funds but failed to fix anything. The city had to issue more bonds, further increasing its debt. The original contractor was eventually fired and another hired to finish the job. The incinerator is finally working, but its revenue flow is insufficient to service the $288m debt.

The experience of Harrisburg has ruined the chances of other waste-to-energy plants. The lack of these incinerators is posing a real problem for those who have to get rid of all the combustible stuff we toss away.

The 3bn cup problem

Enter Starbucks. It is working hard to find a way to recycle the three billion (that’s right) paper cups it dispenses every year in the US. The problem lies in the thin film of plastic preventing the cups from becoming soggy. Recyclers don’t like plasticised paper because it takes a lot of time and energy to pulp. This makes recycling expensive, wasteful and, frankly, economically and environmentally silly.

Starbucks says it is working hard on the solution. But its efforts appear vainglorious, driven largely by PR. If we insist on drinking our coffee from paper cups (or as is the tradition here – two paper cups plus a cardboard heat shield), why don’t we burn the used cups (and plastic tops), extracting the energy from the pulp and plastic to power our new plug-in hybrids and iPads?

If Harrisburg is the example, then clearly this is not going to happen very quickly because there are just not enough clean waste-to-energy incinerators around to cope with the amount of coffee we drink.

Of course, there is one simple solution that very few of us follow: bring your own cup. A small minority does, but most of us can’t be bothered. This is where style comes in.

Many city commuters already resemble hikers from the Appalachian Trail. They heave haversacks and the obligatory metal water bottle popping out of a side pocket for heavy hydration on the slog between Broadway and Madison Avenue. These urban hikers provide a possible solution to Starbuck’s problem. If you can carry a water bottle, why not a coffee cup?

Unfortunately, urban hikers have yet to gain real street cred – the sort of look that would get them into those “seen on the street” blogs from which the fashionistas take their style tips.

But I feel the tipping point is close. If we can neither burn nor recycle our cups, we’re just going to have to carry our coffee mugs with us everywhere we go. Swagman chic is about to hit the streets where we will proudly display our modern version of the billy-can.

Call them iCans and they’ll be winners. You read it here first.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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