Disposable Culture

Disposable culture – a “use once, throw out after” mentality. I use this phrase a lot when I’m talking to store owners, baristas, and people in general about sustainability and coffee shops. I don’t know if the term was manufactured in my mind or I unconsciously acquired it from somewhere, but I have a clear idea of what it means. I think it’s good to spend a few minutes qualifying it.

As part of my coffee shop hop spiel, I usually mention how the coffee industry is increasingly focusing on (and advocating for) sustainability at the farming and production level (e.g., direct trade, fair wages, agriculture education programs, including methods to reduce carbon impact etc.), and developing premium product. When you go to stores, however, you see coffee being served in paper and plastic cups. That just seems contradictory. Why?

When it comes down to it, I think the existing (service) system is reactionary to our lifestyle. We seek convenience. We want things quickly and with minimal effort. One could give a whole evolutionary explanation for why this is the case (like how it is adaptive behavior inherited from our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors), but that’s not the focus. All I have to say on this subject is is that we are no longer face with the same conditions of the past, yet we still retain an archaic mod. We seek convenience without (properly) evaluating the consequences.

The “to-go” food and beverage industry is simply catering to (and making money off of) our demand for convenience. The explosion of delivery apps exemplifies this. Grab your phone, use an online service (like GrubHub, Seamless, or Caviar), and vualá – food comes to you. There is no need to leave your home (or office), let alone get off your a$$!

Part of the convenience of takeout is the packaging. It’s disposable. Enjoy your meal and/or drink, then toss out the (normally paper, plastic, or styrofoam) containers and cups. That’s it. You don’t have to think about anything. That’s nice, but there’s a flip side to this. The fact that you don’t have to think about anything means you’re less likely to become aware of the consequences of your actions.

Each time you get takeout and throw away the containers or cups, they enter a cycle. They accumulate in bins, waiting for collection, then are transported and dumped in landfills, taking hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. There’s also a whole cycle involved to bring you disposable packaging. Often raw materials (such as trees and oil) are needed, manufacturing and production occurs, and supplies are shipped and distributed. Large amounts of energy (like fossil fuel) and human labor are required for both these cycles.

These cycles are driven by demand. Purchasing to-go drinks and food served in disposable packaging endorses (whether intentionally or unintentionally) how our demand is being met. This doesn’t mean we should stop buying things to-go and not seek convenience. We just need to become aware of the type of system in place and how it is feeding a culture that does not encourage accountability or responsibility.

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but it will need to wait for future posts. I’m sure the concept will become refined over time, so will update this post as well. For now, I think it’s important to get the conversation going and convey explicitly what I mean by “disposable culture”.

Coffee Shop Hop #8

Brooklyn Roasting Company (Jay Street store), Brooklyn. Finally here. This has been on my list before I even had a list. Researching about cup waste solutions, I had found out these guys were involved in a project called Good To Go Cup (a cup share program).

My first impression is the size of the place. Tall ceilings, ample seating with communal tables. A large converted warehouse. A land of freelancers. Hip hop is the beat of the place.

There’s a line. I queue up. I observe the people sitting, seeing only paper and plastic cups. I overhear two girls behind me mention the name of a company I’m interested in partnering with. She says she knows four people who work there. This starts an internal debate on whether I should say something to them. I’m next in line and before this dialogue finishes, I’m called up to the counter. I’m greeted by a large, friendly guy with glasses – he’s got the hipster beard. I ask if Dan is in, mentioning we met at the NYC Coffee Festival. The man, whose name I learn is Seon (it took me several tries to remember this) says he had heard something about this.

Seon tells me he’s the manager when I ask if I can ask questions about sustainability in the store. Agreeing with an easy-going attitude, we then step to the other side of the counter.

Seon tells me they give 25¢ off to people who bring reusable cups. I’m curious why this isn’t more obvious – like why isn’t this on the signs? (This is actually a more general question I have to stores that offer a cup discount – why isn’t it big and in bold like on the UK Pret a Manger sign?). “How do people know about this?” I ask. Seon tells me people find out through word of mouth.

They’ve recently formed a partnership with an organization to pick up grinds on a regular basis – that’s big. Stores have a lot of waste generated from grinds. I can only imagine the amount a store of this size has. Seon confirms it’s large.

The paper cups here are biodegradable. They purchase them from Seda Packaging. Plastic cups are recyclable. Seon mentions they will be working with a waste contractor who will sort their trash and provide bins for different types of waste. I ask where the biodegradable cups go. (Another general question I’m still searching for a clear answer). Seon is not sure, commenting all he knows is that they’re paying a lot of money for the service.

My understanding is that biodegradable cups don’t go in recycling but I’m not aware of a sorting process for food waste. I make a note to find out who the contractor is so I can investigate this matter further.

I’m given a sample of their drip. Seon asks me if I want it for-here. “I do! “I see him grab what looks like a plastic cup – a small surge of anxiety shoots up in me, then I realize it’s in the double-insulated glass cup (by Bodum) he was just telling me about. I bring it over to a wooden-topped bar decked with a vintage cash machine and begin working.

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On my bathroom inspection, I see the toilet paper has an environmental certification, soap comes from a dispensary, and there is a hand blow-dryer. I notice that there are plastic cups by the water.

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A portion of the Manhattan skyline is visible from the window I’ve been looking out for the past four hours. A helicopter flies by. The sun has just set and a light pinkish hue lingers in the sky. From my visit, I’ve gathered this Brooklyn Roasting Company store is making an effort to be responsible with their waste. I think they can do more though, particularly with the cup situation. Things like offering more for-here cups and stacking reusable cups by the water are a place to start. I plan on meeting Dan at some point, so likely there is more I’ll learn and have to share.

Posted same day (October 20, 2017) visited

NYC Coffee Festival – Day 1

New York Coffee Festival, Manhattan. October 13 – 15, 2017.

When I visit art museums, I stare at paintings for a long time. I look at all the details, including brushstrokes. I read all accompanying descriptions. This was my approach to the festival. Day 1 (Friday), I only made it through part of the first floor – there were two other floors. I returned for a bit on Saturday and at the end on Sunday to cover the rest of the first floor where most the vendors were. I’ve broken down the festival visit into two posts. This first post consists of excerpts from Day 1.

Day 1

There’s a long line. I have a pass which allows me to walk to the front. Shortly after 2 pm the doors open. The swarm of coffee enthusiasts flood into the building. I’m one of the first people inside. Fresh coffee permeates the air. I don’t have a plan other than I know I want to talk to the people at KeepCup.

The first booth I walked up to is Underline Coffee. A blond-haired barista is preparing samples. We start talking. He’s receptive to what I say and agrees there is a discrepancy  between sustainability at the farming and shop levels. I’m offered some of the Kenyan brew. As he begins pouring it into a small (paper) cup, I’m thinking how I wish I had a reusable for sampling. There’s going to be so much (unnecessary) waste from this event. I make a note to myself to contact the festival organizers to help work on the sustainability of the venue next year (like including a branded reusable mug for sampling as part of the ticket cost). I’m going to hold on to this paper cup and use it for the rest of the event.

paper cup used for whole event

I also have a taste of the Guatemalan, but refuse the other sample, “I want to be able to sleep tonight!” The woman next to me light-heartedly acknowledges how caffeinated she’s going to be at the end. We laugh and start talking, almost immediately bonding over our shared passion for sustainability. Her upbeat positive energy is refreshing. I find out her name is Amy, she’s from California and a human rights lawyer. Amy is moving to NYC next year. We exchange contacts and plan to meet when she’s here.

I see the distinctive yellow color for of the Devoción logo. I go up to their booth hoping Steven (owner) is there. There’s a tall, broad shouldered man with soft brown eyes standing in front of the display. “Are you Steven?” I ask. “Yes.” I introduce myself, telling him about my post featuring his store and recommendations from the visit.

There’s a tech company here, SpeedETab. It’s a system to help reduce service time. I speak with Adam, co-founder. I’m interested in using technology to encourage a BYO mentality. We exchange details and he suggests I talk to some of the places using the system about piloting some rewards scheme. They give me a black reusable bag with white lettering across it: “F*** Lines” it reads. Couldn’t agree more.

I head over to Toby’s Estate – Adam told me they use SpeedETab. I meet Jessica who works at their head office. She likes the idea of a rewards scheme but explains her experience with the difficulty of implementing a pilot across their stores. She tells me to keep in touch as things move along.

I finally see KeepCup and beam-line over. I begin talking with Sandy, discussing potential collaboration ideas. She shows me this slick clear plastic cup with a black cap and white sleeve – they’re introducing this line soon. We agree it’s something we could see New Yorkers using – Sandy’s only reservation is the white sleeve. She thinks black would be better, masking scuffs and wear and tear. Sandy takes my details so she can send me some samples.

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I see the colorful letters of the Brooklyn Roasting Company and head there. They’re on my shop hop list. I’d like to visit them know because I know they’re interested in sustainability. I read before coming to NYC they were involved in a project called  Good To Go Cup (like a bike-share program but for cups). I’m greeted at the booth by a man with an Australian accent, Dan. He maintains a great enthusiasm throughout our conversation. He tells me the company likes to be pioneers; being the first to try new things, including in areas related to sustainability. He explains how they try to be fun and different, providing examples from things like the bold colors on their log to a recent publication of a comic book covering the rich history of coffee. Dan grabs a copy to show me. We plan on continuing our conversation at the Jay Street Store.

It’s past 6 pm. I can’t drink any more coffee. I’m going to have to come back tomorrow to finish this floor.

Coffee Shop Hop #7

Smallest shop visited, longest time reviewing. You’ll see why.

Part 1. October 6 2017

Terremoto, Manhattan. A small nook, tucked inside a neighborhood building. Easy to miss if it weren’t for the white “T” neon sign outside the store front. I’m going there to meet up with the guy from my first hop at Devoción.

On my way I see “Anthroposophical Society” spanning a wooden-slab. I stop. I attended a Steiner School when I was younger (Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy). People familiar with Steiner’s work tend to be environmentally conscientious. It would be good to make connections I thought.

I meet Sylvia (also my maternal grandmother’s name) who works in the bookstore. One of the society’s board of directors, Tim (and a doctor of Chinese medicine) is there too. They’re very welcoming and offer me a tour of the newly renovated space. I see all sorts of things (like veil paintings, copper rods, and transparency stars) that flood my mind with childhood memories. An immediate sense of familiarity overcomes me – a nice thing in a new city. Sylvia and Tim tell me about green spaces to visit. I share my story and interest in sustainability. At one point this prompts Sylvia to get up and pull out some reusable bags she recently purchased from Integral Yoga. She likes the look and feel of carrying her groceries in them she tells me. Tim gives me his business card with contact details – in a later email correspondence I receive an invitation to talk at the center. I say goodbye, and continue on

I arrive at Terremoto almost an hour late. I see the guy I’m meeting sitting outside, looking down at his phone. No laptop? I thought we were meeting to work. Nope. I find out that’s not what he was thinking. He’s already had a coffee. I decide not to get anything and figure out what he was wanting to do. Chelsea Market.

Before we leave, I have a quick look inside this intimate shop. A dark haired barista is behind the counter. I introduce myself and find out his name, Alp. Alp tells me the owner, Richard will be back from Colombia next week and gives me Richard’s contact details. I later set up a meeting with Richard at 2 pm the following week.


Part 2. October 9, 2017

Face painted on briks

Back at Terremoto. Alp is working. He texts Richard to let him know I’ve arrived. As I wait, I start looking around. There’s only a few people here. They all have disposable cups. The wall in front of me has a vibrant colored image of a woman gazing longingly painted on it. The life of the place is lifted by funk music playing in the background. No bathroom here, so no inspection needed. I can’t pin down the “type” that frequent here. It’s a neighborhood shop and seems to attract a range of people.

I hear Alp’s voice and switch my focus. I find out Richard has a medical emergency. Alp is calm so I’m not worried. I should come back in a few days it’s suggested. I decide to do a bit of work while I’m there, and try and complete the review as best I can.

I overhear Alp asking someone if they’d like Macadamia milk. My ears perk up. After the order is through, I confirm, “you offer macadamia nut milk?” They do. “Would you like to try some?” Alp offers. He pulls out (a paper!) cup and starts pouring before I can say anything. I want to say something, but I can’t. There’s a right time and place to say something – this isn’t it.

The milk tastes amazing. I’m told it’s really good with chai tea. I make a mental note to try that at some point. They also offer oat milk – something the shift lead from Stumptown said is becoming popular in smaller shops (we had tried to guess why – might be something to do with misconstrued? concerns over the sustainability of almond milk). I’m given a taste of that too. I double check “this isn’t regular milk, right?” Alp reassures me. He says it is best with the coffee drinks

An hour and a half passes before I decide to leave. I’ll try and work with what I have on this place for a post.


Part 3. October 11, 2017.

My macadamia chai

I’m heading to my next coffee shop in Soho. Almost mid way, I get an unusually strong craving for a macadamia chai. Mid crossing the street, I literally turn around and head in the direction of Terremoto. A tall blond-haired guy is working today. I ask if he’s Richard. Marchine is his name. Another man, smartly dressed with dark hair emerges and says, “I’m Richard.” He asks me if I’m writing for Califia – he’s expecting to meet with someone from there. I remind him of our email exchange – he seems to have a vague recollection and appears happy to talk with me. I order the macadamia chai latte that had so wittingly pulled me in. We then proceed to the benches outside.

We’re lucky we crossed paths. Richard had just popped in for a few minutes. I tell him about my impulse decision to come. He says a Spanish saying, “recibiste mi mensaje en tus pensamientos” meaning “you received my message in your thoughts” (my version of trying to remember what he said crossed with a Google translation).

I ask Richard about the efforts he makes to run a sustainable shop. He tells me they have branded KeepCups and offer a free drink with their purchase. He remembers mid explanation he needs to order more. I ask what got him into selling the cups. Requests from friends and customers.

I move to the topic of sourcing. Richard has a self-imposed 300 mile limit. He thinks this type approach should be policy for stores – it forces businesses to source locally, reducing energy and shipping costs.

From our conversation, I learn a bit of Richard’s background. He is Colombian. Farming coffee has been the family business for many years but has skipped him and his father’s generation. His family fled Colombia because of the political unrest. His uncle still lives in Colombia, managing the family farm. Richard grew up in Florida, is a creative director and photographer. He wanted an opportunity to do something with coffee which led him to opening Terremoto. He sells mostly Colombian coffee (I notice they have Sey’s coffee).

The interior of the shop is explained to me. The table tops are made of up-cycled wood beams from the Domino Sugar Refinery. The wood floor comes from the Roseland Ballroom.

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One exception Richard tells me to his 300 mile rule is the wallpaper. I hadn’t paid much attention to it previously (it actually makes me think of this gold-leaf design wallpaper that used to be in my grandparent’s bathroom). I learn it comes from England, designed by a friend and printed in the same mills as the wallpaper for the royal palaces.

gold straw

They use regular paper and plastic cups. They don’t do cup discounts. But, their straws are made of paper (by Aardvark) – eco-friendly, compostable, oh, and they’re gold.  People apparently love them. Richard caught someone grabbing a handful once. He now keeps a watchful eye on them. I ask about their price comparison with plastic – something Lance from Sey Coffee raised as an issue. There’s no significant difference. I later email Lance to let him know about what I’ve learned.

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The swag doesn’t stop with the straws. I failed earlier to notice the espresso machine, made of 24k gold Richard proudly tells me. This little guy apparently caused a lot of media hype, landing Terremoto in the pages of places like Forbes and Fortune. On the topic of the machine, I find out the grinds go to a friend he’s partnering with to make body and face soap. “You’re a serial entrepreneur” I observe. His response is a large grin.

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I’m conscientious Richard has been generous with his time (we’ve been talking for almost an hour and a half) and wrap up the the conversation by expressing my gratitude. I’m so glad I acted on that whim. There’s so many little (easily missed) gems about this store, from it’s sustainable efforts (such as the 300 mile rule and the up-cycling of interior materials) to the gold espresso machine. I think they could up their game by being more conscientious about the use of disposable cups – serving more drinks in ceramic cups and using for-here glasses (not disposable plastic) when customers ask for water. They could also offer a discount for people who bring their own cup. Other than that, Terre is little moto suggest.

Coffee Shop Hop #6

Sweatshop, Brooklyn. Chill vibes. Artists and freelancers. It’s mid afternoon and only a few people are at the shop. After trying to discreetly take a picture of the store front using my laptop (which I’ve been doing for all the blog posts btw), I descend down several stairs and walk up to the counter. I’m greeted by a long-haired barista with bangs (a fringe in UK terminology). I give what is now developing into a regular spiel, an intro of what I’m doing and an open-ended question about the store’s sustainable practices. Immediately after this overview, I’m told – through an Auzzie/Kiwi-sounding accent – that staff deliberately ask customers if they’re staying (this is encouraged by management). She shows me the ceramic cups on the top of the espresso bar and points to the disposable cups up (almost out of reach) on a shelf.

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I look around, realizing not a single person in the shop is using a disposable cup. How did I miss this?! Reverse attentional bias – I’m not “threatened” because there are no disposable cups in use? (This investigation is starting to reveal the psychological level I’m affected by waste. Yikes! Ok. Moving on). This observation causes a surge of joy. I can barely contain my happiness, grinning from ear to ear. I’m also put at ease. I feel like I can drop the investigation walk out right now. I don’t, of course. I stay because I want to learn more about what this shop is doing to use it as an example for other stores.

I finally get an opportunity to ask the barista’s name. Izzy. She’s from New Zealand and into coffee and design. I learn the owners of Sweatshop are designers (Izzy does some work with them in that area too). They designed the interior of the shop (previously their studio), including the furniture. Izzy points out and explains various pieces, like the black, up-cycled-steel-topped-milk-crate tables/seats (try saying that fast!). I end up using one to rest my drip coffee sampler on.

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I also find out their pastries are sourced locally and their coffee is purchased from roasters like Counter Culture, known for things like direct trade and self-describe as “dedicated to measurable social, fiscal, and environmental sustainability, not only in our own operations, but throughout the coffee supply chain”. I see funky, white-gray-marbled aluminum cups by the water. Another point for this store!

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I let Izzy get back to work and settle on a bench outside. The music playing sounds psychedelic, like the Beatles. (A few minutes later). “Help” begins playing. Yep that’s the Beatles. Nice.

I’m on a black metal bench. There’s a pair of girls working alongside each other I noticed since I arrived. One of them comes around and sits down. The bench rocks back as she sits down. We let out a laugh. It becomes a constant teeter-totter with each of our movements, despite exerting herculean efforts to avoid displacement.

I get up several times to take more pictures. I realize it’s a lot less creepy if I just announce what I’m doing. The baristas are cool with it, and the onlooking customers must of overheard because I’m not getting any odd looks from raising my laptop over my head, holding it upside down etc.

I end up talking to the pair workers. Nestle – like the chocolate bar she tells me – and Meme. They are both freelancers, previously worked in PR. Nestle is visiting from Turkey. She used to study here and is trying to get a visa to earn a certification to work in skin treatment. Meme quit her job a few months ago, was doing some traveling, and is still figuring out what she wants to do. “NestleMeme”. There’s your company name I say jokingly. I ask for recommendations of places to visit. They share names of a few coffee shops and cafes they like, several of which I’ve already noted to visit.

Bathroom inspection, as you may have guessed, passes with flying colors. TP made of rapidly renewable material (plant materials that grow quickly and are easily replaced) and a bottle of eco-friendly soap.

There’s not much for me to Sweat over at this Shop. I did find out no discount is offered to people who bring a reusable cup, so that is one thing they might want to consider. I am also reminded by a note I made “steel or glass straws”, which they could offer if they want to go fully-out on the for-here experience.

Original visit October 10, 2017.

Coffee Shop Hop #5

Stumptown, Manhattan. It’s a rainy, humid day. I step inside, enveloped by cool air. I wait for the line to clear then walk up to a tall, blond-bearded barista in front of the till. He’s new and directs me to the shift lead. I move along the counter to speak with a dark haired woman working the bar. The first things she tells me when I mention sustainability is that they are from Portland, Oregon. I know by this she means to convey they are green-aware.

Direct purchasing from farmers. Stumptown pioneered that practice the barista boasts. They’ve been with one farm in Guatemala for over 15 years and it is first in that country to receive a carbon neutral certification. The specialty drip today (which sells for around $40 a pound) is from the Guatemalan farm. I try some, asking for it in a for-here cup. “You sure you don’t want it in a paper cup?” the barista playfully teases. I’ve had the thought before, by talking sustainability, my preference is probably obvious. Nonetheless, I still ask to be on the safe side.

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I had noticed when I walked in most people sitting had disposable cups. I’m told the cups are recyclable, including paper. “Really?” I ask. Grabbing one, the shift lead flips one upside down to look at the bottom. Without seeing what she’s looking for (I’m guessing it was the recycle symbol) she tells me that they ask people to return their cups and the staff put them in one of their many colored bins (they don’t keep these out front due to space). They also compost their coffee grinds. I ask if they partner with anyone in the community. They don’t. They’ve tried this in the past but it wasn’t feasible with the quantity of grinds they produce.

I see a carton of organic milk. “You use organic?!” This is actually an exception today – they had ran out of milk. While they appreciate organic, the prioritize local sourcing. Their milk comes from Hudson Valley Fresh. I’m told that each Stumptown store makes connections with local suppliers, not just for their milk but their baked goods too.

Their new coffee packaging is made from eco-friendly materials. I later find on one of their blog posts that the bags are made from a combination of renewable wood pulp and plastic. There is an added component to the material to help break down the plastic faster.

When I ask more about the cup situation, I’m told they use ceramic mainly for espresso and macchiato – drinks meant for-here. Ceramic keeps the drink warm. I find out they offer a 25¢ discount for bringing your own cup. I don’t see it advertised anywhere and comment on that as well as ask (rather bluntly, realizing mid question) why don’t they encourage the use of for-here cups more. Branding. Or at least this is her guess. People walking with their cups help others know their store is close by, bringing in customers who may have otherwise defaulted to a bigger coffee chain store.

As the lead is talking to me, I become aware of her tremendous multi-tasking ability – taking orders, serving customers, training baristas, and cranking out beautiful latte art. My attention is particularly captured by the iconic foam-coffee heart designs that keep passing my eyes. I go a bit off topic, commenting on how latte art has become a huge phenomenon, thanks largely to Instagram. My discussion diversion quickly diverts back to waste. The lead brings up training sessions. She tells me of the horror experienced by the amount of milk and (hand-picked) coffee beans they go through. She tells me her sister is a chemist and would like her to develop something from the practice foam and coffee. “There’s a market right there!” she jokes. Hey, who knows?

I mention an idea that pops into my head that it’s too bad training sessions couldn’t be integrated with some type of customer taste workshop. She smiles, telling me she likes the idea but that the drinks taste awful at this stage. Maybe they could still do something but towards the end stages of training?

I thank her for talking with me and move off to the far end of the bar. As I begin to write, a guy with a gentle disposition approaches me. “I’m not trying to be a creep, but…” I stop him. I realize he’s overheard my conversation. I express my delight in his interest and curious what he has to say next. He begins telling me he’s also doing research and going around to different coffee shops. He’s a designer studying for his masters at Parsons and interested in opening a shop (he hopes in NYC) offering coffee sourced from Yemen. I interrupt him to ask his name. Abdul.

“Why Yemen? What’s the story behind it?” Abdul’s eyes light up; his expression conveys it’s long. “The shorten version” I interject. He begins telling me about his volunteer experience there, helping people extract juices from Khat –  a narcotic banned in many countries (I know this sounds shady, but trust me, that’s not the vibe I get from Abdul) – as well as grow coffee. Knowing the value of coffee and barriers to exporting Khat, Abdul revealed a perplexity: why weren’t more people focusing on growing coffee? There are a multitude of reasons, but the combination of extreme poverty, lack of resources and awareness of the demand has brewed (no pun intended) up the current situation. “They’ve lost their heritage” Abdul says, explaining how Arabica coffee is native to Yemen, but now grown in other places, like Ethiopia and Brazil. (I later check this fact. It’s not clear if it originated in Yemen or Ethiopia, but more interesting is the whole coffee history of this country). The Yemeni people need to be lifted from their situation. They need to be empowered and educated. It is these motives that are driving Abdul.

I recently found out about this entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk (I devoured both his books The Thank You Economy and Crush It in a matter of days). One of his consistent messages is the value of making, and continually pumping out content. The thought “content” comes to mind when hearing Abdul talk. He’s story is great. He clearly has been deeply moved by he’s experience and I sense he has taken on some level of responsibility to help the Yemeni people. At one point in our conversation, Abdul mentions he is Muslim – maybe this is where part of his sense of responsibility comes from. I encourage him to begin sharing.

I begin telling Abdul about my ideas of promoting a BYO cup mentality and/or a cup-hire system. Abdul raises a point about the challenge of behaviour change. I refer to the California and UK bag tax I had discussed with Kramer (Coffee Shop Hop #3). He’s not aware of the ban in California, but tells me he visited the UK in May and remembers the first time he went to a store and was charged for a bag. “I don’t want to be charged for this each time,” he recalls thinking. Like that he started bringing his own bags. I point out “that’s behaviour change” and how quickly it occurred. Abdul kindly compliments the way I articulate things to make sense and illustrate the possibility of real change.

Bathroom inspection came at the end of my visit. Eco toilet paper, looked like paper towels, and hand soap in a refillable bottle. I also notice on my way back a stack of disposable plastic cups by their customer water tap. Not too happy about that.

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I’m Stumptowned that this Portland based coffee company doesn’t do more to encourage customers to use for-here cups, but other than that they seem quite conscientious about engaging in sustainable practices, from local sourcing of milk and baked goods, recycling cups, and composting their grinds. Oh yes, and there’s the 25¢ discount for bringing your own cup.

Original visit October 9, 2017.



Coffee Shop Hop #4

Café Grumpy. Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Vintage and mature hipster are thoughts that come to mind. I notice a mixed crowd: lone and paired workers, moms, and students. It’s a hot day (for October) and appreciate the light breeze offered by the ceiling fan.

Two baristas are behind the counter. I let the woman next to me make her order first before I begin questioning. One of them is a manager and recommends I speak with the owner. He gives me her contact details.

I ask a few more questions anyway. I find out the cold plastic cups are recyclable. The paper cups are not. The barista guesses they get around a 50/50 for-here and to-go customer ratio. He tells me some people who stay prefer to have their drinks in take out cups, giving them the freedom to leave and bring their remaining drink with them.

In making my way back from the bathroom inspection  –  tp made from 100% recycled fiber, paper towels situation unknown (didn’t see any), and soap was in a refillable bottle – I pass the manager. He is mopping behind the counter, underneath the black floor mats. He asks me a question and encourages me again to contact the owner. As he talks, I watch him wring out the mop-head, the diffusing coffee-grind-ladened water drips into a yellow bucket. I find out they offer 25¢ off to people who bring their own cup. I notice some people sitting have plastic and paper cups, but there are also for-here cups in use as well.

I settle at a table located in the middle of the floor near the entrance with my coffee in a glass for-here cup. The music that’s been playing is eclectic: indie rock and some hip-hop. Looking out onto the street through the glass door and windows, I realize the atmosphere has another experiential layer – I feel I am in an old general store, like the type my grandparents would have gone to when they were younger.*

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I’ve been sitting for a bit and decide to walk over to the counter bar to work from there. I meet one of the moms, Mary, and her four-month old daughter, Rocky (her smile slays). I tell Mary about what I’m doing and show her the blog – she grins. I find out she also has a strong interest in sustainability. Despite drinking out of a plastic cup (she calls herself out on that), she says she tries to remember to bring a reusable cup. She agrees having some structure in place (like a meta-reward program or disposable cup charge) would help improve her efforts. It would become a necessity. “Just like a phone, right?” I say. “Yah” Mary replies.

Before the opportunity to describe the concept of a cup-hire system, Mary tells me she’s thought something like a cup rental service would be nice. Yes! We’re on the same wavelength! We exchange contact details and plan to meet again to toss around ideas about sustainability.

I’m finishing up writing and remember a few other things. Mary had mentioned they use glass for milk, not cartons (I think one of the baristas told me that too). I saw a box labelled Pete’s Greens organic vegetable farm, signalling to me an interest in earth-friendly agriculture and/or sourcing (relatively) locally.

Overall Grumpy is far from what I feel after visiting this store. I’m happy to have learned about some of their efforts and hope they will continue these and others in the future.

Visited October 6, 2017. This was technically hop #3. *Found this clip of the Greenpoint Cafe Grumpy in HBO’s Girls. Five seconds into the video, that was the view I had and where I got the “general store” vibe.


Coffee Shop Hop #3

La Colombe. Manhattan. Chill vibes, middle class New Yorkers. Music is a mix of ambient, rock, jazz and Afro-soul/funk. (I later learn baristas have free reign over the tunes here – just no expletives).

Some people are in line so I do my bathroom investigation first. A regular bottled hand-soap. TP is made from at least 25% recyclable fiber – it’s “Green Seal Certified.” Ok. Not bad so far.

I head to the counter. No customers are around. I begin talking with one of the baristas on the floor. He’s not a manager but he humors my questioning anyway. I ask if he knows anything about policies related to sustainability. Mid question I realize that’s not what I should be asking him for details on so I shift the focus to training. I don’t get an answer immediately but he pulls out a stack of rust red, cardboard-ruffled sleeves. He tells me they keep these behind the counter – if people really want one, they’ll ask for it. I inquire whether this is a sustainability or cost-related thing. He isn’t sure. It could be a bit of both.

I find out the coffee packaging was recently changed to a recyclable material (I pulled a box from the shelf later – it said “Earth Friendly” on the side). The hot cups are “just regular paper cups” (i.e., they’re not recyclable). The plastic cups are. There is no discount for bringing your own cup. Coffee grinds are disposed of in the regular trash.

The cup sleeves are pulled out again and I’m told they are made of recyclable material. They’re also a new addition. He and the other baristas hate them. I’m puzzled. He then tells me the inside sticks and whacks one on the counter to show me how they have to open them each time. In that fast-paced environment, every second counts and these slow them down.

I’m told about the company’s coffee purchasing practices. There is emphasis on cultivating strong, long-term relationships with farmers, and educating and helping them improve the quality of their crop. This is contrasted with the auction bidding method of purchasing that many larger companies rely on to meet their demand.

The barista acknowledges this area might not be my focus, but I reassure him of my appreciation learning about this broader context. To my surprise, I say without reflection, “Sustainability is just really about kindness anyway.” I don’t know exactly what I meant, but I think in that moment I made the connection between action and intention: sustainable actions are motivated by good (kind) intentions – for the earth and those that inhabit it.

I’m told that this year their Nicaraguan coffee is outstanding – a testament to their commitment working with their farmers. It’s on drip today. My luck! I have some in a glass for-here cup. I’m not a coffee connoisseur and will generally leave reviewing to the experts, but I actually taste the distinctive cherry notes described on the label – I often use the power of my imagination to taste what I’m supposed to – this isn’t the case.

Photo on 07-10-2017 at 16.01 #2

I haven’t got the name of the barista yet. Kramer, like from Seinfeld. “Do you get a lot of comments about that?” He does.

I move to a waiting counter to start writing. At one point Kramer catches my attention and asks if I’ve seen their water area. He brings me over to a two-tap fountain and says it’s in their stores to bring awareness on issues surrounding access to drinking water. This is part of the company’s values. I note on their website they also have a “Strictly Earth Conscious” value which is to engage in “the best environmental practices”.

Photo on 07-10-2017 at 16.43

Still by the fountain. I start going into deeper conversation with Kramer, explaining my interest in sustainability and how I got to where I am. Kramer mentions he’s previously given thought to some of the issues I’ve raised. He sees staff drink out of plastic cups, thinking about how this adds up five shifts a week, week after week. He has also applied this thinking to customers, observing people coming in, sometimes twice a day buying drinks in plastic or paper cups. It all adds up. People could easily bring their own cup, but agrees there’s no real incentive.

Kramer asks if I’ve heard of the single-use bag ban in California. I have a faint recollection of it, but more familiar with the 5p charge in the UK that went into effect 2015. I was living in England at the time and had the chance to witness first-hand the large-scale change in peoples’ behavior. Kramer observed this shift too. When he goes back to LA to visit his parents, the checklist leaving the house includes the usual (e.g., phone, grocery list etc.) and THE BAGS! Bringing a bag is now just part of the routine.

Is it really that far-fetched to think this can happen with cups? I’m partial to the idea of a rewards system (for no other reason really other then having spent more thinking about it), but a disposable cup tax may be a better solution, at least in terms of having a more immediate effect. According to the principles of loss aversion (a behavioral economic theory), we’re more likely to change our behavior to avoid a loss than if we’re rewarded with an equivalent gain. So basically, if people knew they were going to be hit with a 25¢ charge every time they used a disposable cup, they’d be more likely to bring their own cup than if they were rewarded a 25¢ discount for bringing a reusable.

I briefly mention Alan’s thoughts from the other day about the sense of pride people could develop from owning their unique cup and dishware. Kramer seems to recognize something from this insight and brings up Chinese tea culture. He describes the relationship that develops from using the same teapot – there’s just something in that consistency.

On the topic of Chinese tea-drinking traditions, Kramer makes reference to tea pets. I only remembered this later and search online to learn more. According to Wikipedia, these little clay figures bring luck to the tea drinker. The also need to be “raised” (maintained), meaning they require long-term care. The most popular of these tea pets is the Pee pee boy (yes, you read that correctly). I’m sure you can appreciate my hesitation searching for this online, but I braved the internet sea and typed “Pee pee boy” into Google’s search engine. Fortunately, the internet knew what I was looking for and I ended up finding this short video demo for those of you with curious minds.

Skateboarding to and from work, Kramer mentions observing a growing radius of La Colombe cups on the street. I sense his disturbance in this observation, as well as a subtle frustration from the inability to curb this trend.

La Colombe seems to have good intentions and is making efforts in the area of sustainability. There are some things I think they could do better and I’ve made a note to myself to email the owner, requesting they offer customers the option of cold for-here cups and stock these for-here cold cups by the water tap.

Visit was on October 7, 2017. I’m posting on Colombeus day.

Thoughts from a Green Community Volunteer

Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) headquarters, Brooklyn. It’s just after 11 am. I have a meeting with Alan, NAG chairman volunteer, urban planner, and leader of several green-related projects, including Curb Your Litter. I press the buzzer. No answer. A few minutes pass. I figure something has come up and the meeting is cancelled. I decide to open my laptop to look at directions to my next #CoffeeShopHop. There’s no wifi. The address on Google maps isn’t there anymore. Crap.

A few more minutes pass again while I try to figure out what I’m going to do. A broad-shouldered man with a box of tools and paints walks up and begins opening another door to the building. I ask him if he knows Alan. He does and has a meeting with him at 12:30. I mention my 11 o’clock meeting and am given access to the building to see if Alan is inside. I’m told where the office is but the man decides to walk up the stairs with me anyway. I knock on the door. No answer. We go back downstairs. As we descend, he tells me he’s “The Man” (aka the building owner). I find out his name. Mark.

Mark offers to let me into the building across the street (he owns that one too) to wait for Alan and use the wifi. The waitress preparing to open the store gives me the password. Once connected, I see an email from Alan. He is at Sweetwater, a bistro around the corner. I call Alan and tell him I’m on my way.

When I arrive, Alan is outside waiting for me. He’s ordered his food (steak, salad, a large plate of fries, and a beer). We decide to sit outside in the back garden. It’s a beautiful day and we have the place to ourselves. I pull out my kale salad (in a reusable container, of course) and we start talking.

I wrote notes yesterday but decide not to look at them. Alan tells me what brought him from Alabama to New York. He came here to pursue his passions and “grow up”. I laugh. That’s kind of why I’m here too – at least the “pursuing my passions” part.

I learn about several of his early ideas, including this really cool one to help reduce street litter. He had made contact with two local artists (Iranian refugees) who were going to design trash bins for shop owners to place outside their store fronts. Unfortunately this plan fell through because trash bins need to be green (a NYC Department of Sanitation requirement).

Alan later outlines NAG’s Shareware pilot project – a free program for people to take and return reusable containers from participating restaurants. This ended in April 2017. It struggled. Alan believes there were several reasons why, including too few participating restaurants (one closed during the pilot), catering to the wrong crowd, and the area fit (it was mainly residential). The piloting is apparently continuing, but in a another neighborhood.

Alan mentions several people who would be good to contact, including the women behind the Shareware, and a Brooklyn restaurant owner actively involved in promoting sustainability in the food and beverage industry. I note their names down for future interviews.

At one point discussing BYO containers and cups, Alan shares with me he has his own on-the-go “kit” (dishware and utensils). He pauses in reflection and then proceeds to tell me how using your own dishware and cup can instill a sense of pride – not necessarily from the sustainable action (though pride might come from that too), but from their representation of family (e.g., by the design or use of crests). This is like a Game of Thrones type of pride. Hey, maybe Alan’s on to something.

As we’re waiting for the bill, Alan asks if I’ve heard about the recent event run by the The New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling NYC. Several small businesses had gathered to share and discuss ideas about sustainable ways New Yorkers can dispose of food scraps.

Alan Google maps the coffee shop location I’m visiting next. As we say good-bye, I’m encouraged to keep in touch, and told I wont be NAGging him by doing so. I’m grateful to learn from people’s experiences and knowledge. A good meeting overall.

Meeting was on October 6, 2017. I found this interesting overview on the history of cutlery whilst writing this post.

Coffee Shop Hop #2

Sey Coffee. Who knew a converted garage would make for such a cool, laid back atmosphere. The alternative indie rock takes precedence over the sound of conversation and the wide open space and natural lighting is what I sense visually.

I step in and am immediately greeted by Lance, one of the store’s owners working behind he counter. Off the bat I ask him about his thoughts on sustainability and in-house practices. He tells me that their approach to business is driven by sustainability. Their to-go cups (hot and cold) – made by World Centric – are biodegradable. Lance says the one thing they don’t have are alternatives to plastic straws. I ask about straws made of bamboo but am told they’re not cost effective.

I notice the to-go and for-here cups are not branded and don’t see Sey’s name or logo around the store (when mentioning this to Lance, I am shown the white painted letters on the door, but Sey what you will, it is not overpowering). Upon observing this, I ask Lance if their store would use a cup-hire system (like a city bike hire scheme, but for cups). Lance said this wasn’t ideal (particularly if cups were plastered with advertises) and mentions they’re getting branded KeepCups soon. To encourage a BYO mentality, they’ll be offering customers these reusable cups at a low price and giving the first five drinks away free. Lance says this is to help get people in the habit of bringing their own cup. In my opinion, for a small business, I think that’s really generous and reflects their commitment to sustainability.

For their for-here options (I am sipping the drip coffee), I’m given my drink in a glass vessel with a side of sparkling water served on a wood platter. Now this is what I’m talking about!

Photo on 04-10-2017 at 15.43 #3

I don’t have a grading system for in-store sustainable practices yet, but I’d probably give them full marks (they even have a bottle of Meyer*s basil scented hand soap and eco-friendly paper towels in the bathroom). Well done Sey Coffee! I hope to see more of this in future coffee shop hops!

*Visited Sey Coffee on October 4, 2017.