The Hidden Costs of Fast Coffee

That cup of coffee from the drive-thru costs a lot more than just $1.49.

Bleary-eyed and impatient, you’ve got an extra five minutes in your morning commute to grab the one thing you feel is an absolute essential to get you into working mode: a cup of coffee. Fighting for a parking space and standing in line behind the kind of people who need to stare at the menu for five minutes – people who aren’t in a hurry – doesn’t appeal. So you do what thousands of other Americans do each and every morning, and pause just long enough to drive through a Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons or other quick coffee hotspot.

For those of us who can’t seem to get going in the morning without caffeine, it’s not hard to see the appeal. But have you ever thought about the environmental impact of that cup of coffee, between idling in the drive-thru, tossing out all those disposable cups, and consuming products that probably aren’t all that great for you?

Americans waste 3.8 million gallons of gasoline every single day by voluntarily idling their cars – that’s excluding the time spent in traffic jams. With just five minutes of idling per day, your drive-thru coffee is costing you an average of 10 gallons of fuel and 220 pounds of CO2 emissions over the course of a year.

And then there’s the styrofoam. Most fast-food coffee retailers with drive-thrus are still using  cheap and totally non-biodegradable disposables to dole out cups of coffee to millions of people every day. Each year, Americans throw out 25 BILLION styrofoam cups, which will still be sitting in landfills 500 years from now. Dunkin’ Donuts is actually looking for a greener cup, but it hasn’t yet found one that will keep customers’ hands cool and coffee hot while also being recyclable or compostable. The chain is planning an in-store styrofoam recycling program for 2013, but when you’re driving through, how likely is it that you’ll use it?

Speaking of Dunkin’ Donuts, the brand’s fans tend to be a rabid bunch. Their slogan, “America Runs on Dunkin'” is a deliberate reflection of their reputation as the total opposite of Starbucks – simple and unpretentious. It also says something unpleasant about America’s fast food obsession, and the fact that as a nation, we really do subsist on a whole lot of diabetes-inducing, ultra-processed food and drink. But back to the point. Dunkin’ Donuts has a long-running Facebook Fan of the Week promotion, in which many of its 6.6 million Facebook fans post photos of themselves eating or drinking the brand’s products on its Facebook page. Thousands of fans also changed their Facebook photo to a picture of the brand’s Coffee Coolatta drink, implicitly endorsing the product to all their friends. That’s some serious devotion.

Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t all bad. You might be surprised to learn that all of Dunkin’ Donuts’ espresso drinks – that’s right, all of them – are made with fair trade espresso beans. Compare that to Starbucks, where the percentage of fair trade espresso beans is just 3.7 percent. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t make a big deal about this fact, advertising it with just a small sticker on the doors of each location. While Starbucks’ massive reach means it’s still the biggest buyer of fair trade beans in America, Dunkin’ Donuts is no small player, and choosing fair trade beans is a pretty big deal. Too bad the same can’t be said for many other chains.

And what about all of those added ingredients like flavored syrups, artificial sweeteners and non-dairy creamers? What’s in that stuff, anyway? Unsurprisingly, the main ingredient in liquid non-dairy creamer is partially hydrogenated oil, followed by sugar, corn syrup, a sweetener called sodium stearyl lactate, the milk protein sodium caseinate, additional processed fats and salts. Powdered creamer contains corn syrup solids, vegetable oil solids and a similar mix of unpronounceable ingredients, including dipotassium phosphate – phosphoric acid, which is also used as pesticide.

Let’s just say you get a medium Dunkin’ Donuts coffee five mornings per week, 51 weeks out of the year. At $1.49 per cup, that adds up to $379.95. That’s a lot of cash. With all of these expenses, both out-of-pocket and indirect, making coffee at home has never been more appealing. Especially when you could be doing it with a damn sexy French Press.

Photo: PSD

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.