Q. I’m an ardent K-Cup hater and saw that you just covered their wastefulness. But if lazy people are still going to be lazy, is a K-Cup any more wasteful than getting coffee to go in a disposable cup? K-Cups are arguably smaller but entirely plastic (in many places unrecyclable). Disposable coffee cups are larger but may be recyclable paper or plastic (for iced) with a plastic lid, or Styrofoam (cringe!). So if we’re going to make an irresponsible choice, is one the lesser of two evils?

Erin J.
Brooklyn, NY

A. Dearest Erin,

There are times in life that we must pick the lesser of two evils, when the only choices available to us are flawed, when we must hold our noses and swallow our bitter pills. A cynic might say elections are one of those times; I tend to think of my junior year in high school, when my only sixth-period elective options were line dancing or competitive dodgeball (I still can’t do the Boot-Scootin’ Boogie correctly, by the way). This is not one of those times.

For me, the essence of your question begins and ends with this phrase: “If we’re going to make an irresponsible choice.” We agree, then, that opting for throwaway coffee accoutrements — whether they are landfill-bound, recyclable, or compostable — is irresponsible, because one could be using a reusable mug/thermos or filter/brewer instead. So the real question is, “Why are we going to make an irresponsible choice?” Or, more fully: “If we are the kind of people who care about making responsible, sustainable choices, why are we picking the disposable coffee?”

You are clearly someone who cares, Erin. You took the time to write to me, so I know you’re not lazy. If I may read between the lines of your query, though, I suspect you are someone who occasionally buys to-go coffees in disposable cups, and who wants to feel better about that by knowing her choice is still better than K-Cups. Well? How’d I do?

I get it, Erin: Sometimes you forget your thermos. Sometimes you don’t plan on buying coffee, but then you walk by your favorite coffeeshop and see they’re finally featuring pumpkin-gingerbread-shamrock lattes again, and now you really, really want one. So rather than dissecting which irresponsibly disposable coffee cup is the least bad (because you’re right, they both create a lot of waste), I hope you forgive me if we talk about how to remember your thermos instead.

It’s all about getting in the habit. Make an effort to stash your mug in your bag, in your bike cup holder, rolled up in your yoga mat — wherever you’ll be sure to take it with you — regularly for a week or two, and I promise it’ll become second nature. If you like to travel light, try a collapsible one. Set a recurring reminder on your phone for 10 minutes before you leave the house every day if you need to. Soon enough, you’ll automatically think “Keys? Wallet? Mug?” as you walk out the door.

And if you find yourself desperately in need of coffee but without your trusty thermos one day, don’t beat yourself up over your irresponsible choice to buy the java to go. Perhaps you can atone by donating $10 or $20 to your environmental charity of choice every time this happens — nothing snaps us out of laziness quite like the sting of a financial penalty.

Philosophically,
Umbra