A $100 Cup of Coffee

This morning I stopped by my favorite coffee and donut shop in the Mission, owned by a friendly Vietnamese couple in their 50s. Or maybe they are Thai or Burmese, I can't be sure. Anyway, their coffee isn't particularly good, but the price is right, parking is usually easy to find, and they throw in a few free donut holes with every donut.

This morning I noticed that they had replaced their styrofoam coffee cups with paper ones. I made a point of mentioning to the woman, "Hey, great new cups!"

She then told me that the City of San Francisco fined them $100 for using styrofoam and that if they were caught again, the fine would be $500.

The ban on styrofoam has been in effect for over a year now, so she couldn't plead ignorance. "That's too bad," I said. "But paper cups are better than styrofoam."

"Very expensive," she said. Ok, maybe she decided that she wasn't likely to get caught, and that the savings for styrofoam were worth the risk.

"Well, why not raise your coffee price by $.05 to cover your costs?" I asked.

She laughed and then pulled out a big bag of styrofoam cups from underneath the counter. "One thousand of these cups cost $15. One thousand of those paper cups cost $50. Very expensive. Next time the fine will be $500."

I tried to reassure her that paper was better than styrofoam, and suggested that she might even want to put her business name on them.

"Yeah, [business name here]" she laughed. Right, I thought. If spending an extra three and a half cents per cup was 'very expensive,' no way was she ever going to spend money on custom printed cups.

Now I suspect that green-bashers might point to a story like mine and say, "This just proves that San Francisco isn't a business-friendly town. They put environmentalism over small business owners." Except they would probably be less civil in their language.

My response would be, how much does a styrofoam cup really cost? Sure, its cheaper than paper, but what are the externalities of styrofoam production, styrofoam consumption and styrofoam disposal? I bet its more than $.035 per cup.

The problem with pro-business, anti-environmentalist types is that they fail to consider, let alone measure, externalities. If we want to measure the true cost of something like a coffee cup, how can we ignore them?

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