Intellectuals and Coffee Shops

Intellectuals and Coffee Shops
Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I often frequent one of the coffee chops on the University of Chicago campus. I am taking a summer session in intensive Portuguese while here, and ordering coffee in the morning is an absolute necessity for me. As many know, the University of Chicago is famous for its demanding academic schedule and infamous for the amount of stress it conjures in its brilliant students.

I’ll admit that, even though I am only here for the summer from Fayetteville and am not matriculated as a full-time student at the university, I felt suddenly more scholarly and acutely intelligent walking around this campus amongst intellectual giants. However, there is one place that I find myself feeling more progressive and innovative than the majority of those around me: the coffee shop.

Let me offer a brief anecdote to explain why I feel this way. While I stand in line each morning to order my coffee, I see customer after customer standing in line empty handed. They then proceed to order a beverage in a single use, paper or plastic cup, only to then go and sit down, consume their beverage on the premises, and throw the disposable cup into the garbage.

For any of you who have gone to a coffee shop, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the garbage bins are overflowing with plastic and paper coffee cups. Though this may sound like a fairly uninteresting description of a commonplace daily activity, for me such behavior signals a problem. A problem that permeates even the most highly regarded of intellectual communities, like the patrons of the aforementioned coffee shop at the University of Chicago.

So what’s the problem with coffee shops and intellectuals, you may be asking? The problem is this: even within the most progressive groups of individuals, the norm is to default to disposable. What’s even worse is that we default to disposable without ever having to think about it. Disposable consumption is the status quo. Anyone that has gone to a coffee shop, for example, can envision a typical interaction with a barista.

After waiting in a line of stressed, rushed people craving caffeine, we rapidly place our orders, the barista immediately grabs a plastic cup for iced beverages or a paper cup for hot beverages, we drink the beverage in a matter of minutes, the disposable vessel is tossed into the garbage, and it ultimately winds up in the landfill. The coffee drinkers that bring their own reusable mug or cup are few and far between, and they must make a concerted effort to have the barista use their drinking vessel in lieu of a disposable one.

Witnessing so many bright, forward thinking individuals – like the patrons of University of Chicago coffee shops – default to disposable is of particular interest here because it seems like such an obvious failure to tackle a pressing issue.

At risk of this sounding like a green-washing diatribe and an attack against those employed in the academic realm, let me reframe the situation: Whether or not you ascribe society’s troubles to environmental issues, it is inarguable that America is a single-use country with a waste management problem.

For example, more than 50 percent of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee daily, which is more than 150 million daily drinkers. That’s 150 million paper or plastic cups going straight into the landfill (or winding up in gutters or on sidewalks). Just imagine if each one of those drinkers opted to forego a disposable cup even once a week and brought their own reusable mug. The impact would be enormous. And, contrary to popular belief, making an enormous impact is simple in this instance.

I often feel overwhelmed with the mere thought of approaching the vast and complex array of issues that exist in our world today. But that is why coffee shops and intellectuals should collaborate: academics can begin solving one of the most pressing issues in today’s society with their first cup of coffee each day by choosing to default to reusable. And while they spend the rest of their day researching academic texts, the rest of us can tackle the same major issue right alongside them as we drink our own cups of coffee.

Erin Anderson is a graduate student at the University of Arkansas.

Categories: Commentary