Friday, March 20, 2009

Toronto's Tempest in a Coffee Cup

Toronto's Tempest in a Coffee Cup

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2009


How many people does it take to figure out how to dispose of paper cups?

If you're the city of Toronto, it takes six months for 40 people divided into five sub-committees to thoroughly examine the issue, followed by $50,000 worth of consultants' reports.

Consultant REPORTS? I could do it in two words.

"Recycle them."

Cost per word? $25,000. Oh sure, I can expand that to "You should recycle the cups" to increase the value of the report ($10,000 per word), but the net result is the same.

To be fair, Toronto is dealing with 350 million cups, but still 40 people divided into FIVE sub-committees? $50,000 of consulting reports?! I could get rid of that many cups by myself for $50,000, and it would take me ten minutes.

"Dear Montreal, Have I got a deal for you!"

In Toronto's defense, this is actually part of a larger problem they're dealing with. According to a story in the Toronto Star, they want to get packaging materials out of the garbage stream, and the biggest problem is the paper cups from the hundreds of coffee shops around Toronto and neighboring suburbs.

The city council turned to city employees to see if any of them had any suggestions. They gave recommendations like giving $.20 discounts to customers who bring in their own cups, coffee shops using porcelain and other reusable cups, and banning plastic lids altogether because the plastic contaminates paper recycling.

These seemed like common sense ideas, which is why they were immediately dismissed as implausible and untenable. After all, we can't have common sense in government, can we?

Plus, the Canadian takeout industry whined and complained to the Toronto city council, which gave in to the skin-flinty, penny-pinching whims of a few in order to sacrifice the many.

"Give a 20 cent discount to people who help lower our own costs? Heaven forfend, eh!"

I go to several local coffee shops that all give some sort of discount to people who bring in their own cups. One of my coffee shop owner friends told me that a cup typically costs him $.25, which eats into his profit, so if he can give a $.20 discount for a cup, he makes an extra nickel. Something tells me the Canadian takeout industry didn't think of that.

So the city council gave their 40 committee members and their five sub-committees until April. But then the $50,000 consultants were brought in, and the deadline was pushed back to June, because there are important things to consider when disposing of paper coffee cups. Things like consumers attitudes and behaviors (they litter), markets for recycled materials (there are), and health and safety concerns with customers using their own cups (there aren't). See, six more words at no extra charge.

Coffee shops are worried about customers bringing in dirty cups. They believe if the germy cups rub up against coffee dispensers, they could spread disease. And – get this – if customers got sick from drinking from a badly-cleaned porcelain cup, they could get blamed.

First, if a coffee shop does a bad job cleaning their own porcelain cup, they ARE to blame. Second, train baristas not to go smearing customers' cups on the spigots. If you're that concerned about it, rinse the cups out first or give the customers a Sani-Wipe and tell them to go to town.

It's like the time California restaurants tried to get exemptions from rolling statewide blackouts a few years ago, saying they might accidentally serve undercooked food to patrons during the blackouts. They ignored the fact that without power, they wouldn't be able to 1) cook the food, 2) see the food, or 3) run the cash register to sell the food.

Most coffee shops offer free or cheap refills. Do the baristas wash those cups when you ask for a refill? No, they just smear your filthy, disease-ridden cup on the spigot, transferring germs to and from everyone else's cups.

But Toronto is still facing a serious problem: what to do with 350 million cups each year for the next ten years? You could burn them, but the resulting smoke would block out the sun for weeks, making the place colder than it already is.

Whatever they do, it's going to take a lot of brain power and consultants, and I won't be surprised if they ask for at least another $100,000 to come up with an answer. Or for $10,000, I'd be happy to write their follow up report, and I'd even use a lot more words:

"No seriously, I mean it guys. You really really really should recycle the coffee cups."

Only $667 per word. Now that's a bargain.


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