About My Climate and Sustainability Research

Summarizing all my projects in one place

I must have always loved animals, because I don’t remember ever starting to. Bugs, crows, frogs, and the rhinos on the nature programs on TV — I relate to them all. This interest in wildlife quickly led me to conservation, and climate change because, well, my animal peers couldn’t vote*, so I would.

[* or can they?]

But it wasn’t till 2021 that I dove into climate and sustainability research in a big way, and longer still till I found my voice writing about it.

Until then, I’d been studying engineering subjects tangentially related to climate, such as spacecraft that could be used for climate, how renewable energy sources worked, etc.

I felt like I didn’t know the terminology that was used in environmental circles. Climate is such an interesting cross-cutting problem that you need multiple approaches to really understand it — from the lenses of atmospheric science, ecology, technology, economics, policy and regulation…

Each with its own concepts, terms, and history.

So, I set myself structured reading projects, each about 3 months long, with a specific reading list. I made blog updates as I worked my way through, if you want to see how I did it.

Here’s the first one I did in Jan-Mar 2022 (setup, day 1, days 2–3, days 3–6, recap), where I got started with the basics, by reading the science and policy reports that were in the news at the time. It got me familiar with the types of language used.

For the second project (research lineup, days 1–2, multi-project update 1, day 3, day 4, day 5, multi-project update 2), I read another batch of reports, going a little broader from what I’d just learned.

For the third, I experimented with advocacy methods (public comments, letters to the editor, city council meetings, multiproject update).

Since then, climate action has become a much bigger and ongoing part of my life, and research just fits in with the rest. I don’t do these structured reading projects any more, but I still write about interesting tidbits I find in my Research Dispatch series. And I have a roundup of climate news over here.

Two years into my research quest, I gave a TEDx talk about climate change! It was a crystallization of everything I was learning, and an exciting, creative experience.

I believe finding our voices and bringing them to the climate movement is an important way to contribute. And if I can do it, you can too!

Also appears: Medium, LinkedIn

Here’s my free resource to overcome overwhelm and find clarity on YOUR personalized next step to protect the environment.

Los Angeles Climate Action Guide

Notes: This is an update to the Volunteering Guide I wrote in 2022. Also, I have a new website dedicated to LA environmental resources! Be sure to bookmark it if you’re in LA and itching to get into action 🙂

Welcome to the LA Climate Action Guide!

Volunteering for environmental causes is a great way to spend an evening or weekend having an impact, with fun activities and maybe even the outdoors thrown into the mix! 

Finding volunteer opportunities is surprisingly difficult, though. Searching the internet for ‘environmental volunteering’ or ‘volunteer for the climate’ doesn’t always pull up what you’re looking for or represent the full range of possibilities. You often have to try multiple search terms and sift through opportunities that vary widely in what activities they focus on, what skills they require, and their time commitment.

When I first got started after moving to LA, I poked around the internet and signed up for volunteer events here and there. Over time, I found more organizations through email lists, links from one organization to another, and introductions.

To make the process of getting started easier, I’ve put together a list of organizations and volunteer resources in LA.

The two main types of volunteering related to the environment are Advocacy and Nature. Advocacy is about communicating and building support for policies and social change. Nature volunteering is about interacting with ecosystems and tends to be outdoors: planting, observing, and teaching about organisms and habitats.

You don’t have to pick just one between Advocacy and Nature! They complement each other, and I’d suggest trying a bit of each, and finding the mix that works for you.

Before we start, here are some notes on how to use this website:

  • This list is under construction! I will add resources as I find them. It’s not meant to be exhaustive, nor can it be.
  • I recommend using this list by signing up to hear directly from the organizations you are interested in: join their email list or connect on social media. Then, try out a few opportunities until you find one or more organizations to commit to.
  • I only have direct knowledge and opinions about some of the groups listed. The rest are included as starting points to jumpstart your own research. 
  • While I make every effort to refresh the information here, it can only be so up-to-date. Please interact with each organization directly for timely information about their events.

Now, let’s get to the organizations. There are three sections below. The first is Places to Look (namely, databases of organizations I looked through when making this resource, that you can refer to directly), followed by selected organizations focused on Advocacy and Nature respectively.

Places to Look

These are places to look for climate organizations to volunteer with. 

It might take some in-depth research and sorting to find ones that have volunteer-based events or work on areas you are interested in. I have done some of that sifting for you in the sections below, but if none of those organizaations meet your needs and you want to do your own search, you can start here.

Advocacy Organizations

This is a non-exhaustive list to get you started, in no particular order. I suggest signing up for their email lists, attending a few meetings, and deciding which to commit to. If none of these work for you, check out the ‘Places to Look’ section above to find more organizations on your own.


In their own words: “Our movement is rising up for bold climate action. We work with people across the world to oppose those wrecking our climate and to fight for a sustainable future. At every step of the way we are driven by the knowledge that every voice makes a difference, and every battle won is another step towards a safe, liveable planet.”

Authors’s note: I have worked with my local chapter, and in my experience they focus on policy and legislation at the state level.

Here is a chapter map to find your local chapter.

If you are in LA county, your chapter is likely one of these:

Citizen’s Climate Lobby

In their own words: “Our solution to climate change? Democracy.

And we need you on our team.”

Author’s note: I have worked with my local chapter, and in my experience, they are focused on policy and legislation at the federal level.

Here is a chapter map to find your local chapter. If you are in LA county, it is likely one of these:

  •  CA San Fernando Valley CCL Chapter. For more information on how to become involved, please email sanfernando[at]citizensclimatelobby[dot]org”
  • CA SoCal Tri-Counties. “For information on meeting time and location, please email socaltricouties.ca [at] citizensclimatelobby.org”
  • CA Long Beach Area. “​​For information on how to become involved please email longbeach[at]citizensclimatelobby[dot]org”
  • CA Los Angeles West CCL Chapter. “For information on how to become involved please email losangeles at citizensclimatelobby dot org”
  • CA Los Angeles Mid City CCL chapter. “We are looking for more new members especially constituents of California’s 37th district. For information on how to become involved please email la.midcity [at] citizensclimatelobby [dot] org”
  • CA South Bay Area. “For more information on how to get involved, please email southbay.ca [at] citizensclimatelobby.org”
  • CA Orange County Coast. “For more information about how to get involved, please email orangecounty [at] citizensclimatelobby.org”
  • CA Pasadena Foothills CCL chapter. “For meeting time and location, email pasadena at citizensclimatelobby dot org”
  • CA Inland Valley CCL chapter. “For information on how to become involved please email inlandvalley at citizensclimatelobby dot org”

Sunrise Movement

In their own words: “We believe everyone should have access to clear air and water, full pantries of food, affordable housing, free public transportation, good and meaningful jobs, vibrant community centers, and lives filled with joy. We’re building a movement to make that happen.”

Author’s note: I’ve been to events that partnered with the Sunrise Movement. They are youth-oriented and policy-focused.

Here is a hub map to find your local hub. If you are in LA county, it is likely one of these:

Third Way

In their own words: “We are fighting for opportunity, so everyone has the chance to earn a good life; progress on social issues, so all have the freedom to live the lives they choose; and security, so we are protected from 21st century global threats.”

Author’s note: I haven’t worked with them myself, but I have signed up for their emails and found their resources useful.

Here is the site for their Southern California chapter.

Climate Reality Project

In their own words: “At The Climate Reality Project, our global network of 3.5 million is working to build a just and sustainable true net zero future.”

Author’s note: I have taken their training and the organizations I work with have partnered with them on events and issues.

Here is their chapter map to find your local chapter. If you are in LA county, it is likely this one: Climate Reality LA

Sierra Club

In their own words: “We champion solutions to the climate crisis. We work for  clean air, safe water, land protection, and a vibrant natural world. We fight for environmental and social justice. We believe in getting people outside to enjoy the outdoors.”

Author’s note: I haven’t worked with them directly, but they have partnered with many of the groups I have worked with on issues and events.

Here is the site for their Los Angeles Chapter.

Nature Organizations

Here is a non-exhaustive list of organizations that hold outdoor volunteer events, categorized by the type of work they do. Follow them to see what they have coming up!

[Just a list by category for now, more details to come.]

Trail Work

This activity involves maintaining trails. It tends to be on the strenuous side, and fun!

Habitat Restoration

This activity includes planting, weeding, and removing trash and other objects.

Citizen Science 

More to come!

The Climate Movement Needs Your Creativity, Not Your Guilt

Me, onstage. Photo credit: my sister.

(This is an annotated transcript of the TEDx talk I gave in April 2023. It’s 10 minutes long. I’d suggest watching it first and then coming here for supporting materials.)

Does climate action feel impossible?

When I was a kid, I was interested in everything. I’d need about 10 careers to do it all. So I got out my green and blue markers and made a calendar to keep track of which job I’d have on which day of the week. On Monday, I’d be a scientist, on Tuesday, a painter. Friday — some kind of explorer, because I loved nature documentaries. I related to how animals seemed fascinated by whatever was right in front of them.

Every documentary ended with a reminder that these animals needed our help, and all the ways they were threatened by human activity. I couldn’t believe no one had managed to do something about this. But I figured I would know how when I grew up.

So, though I kept changing my mind about what I would be, the one constant was that it would have something to do with climate and conservation.

Years later, I was working as an engineer and plugging away at my art and writing. I didn’t tell anyone about my master plan to connect it all to climate, but I hadn’t forgotten it. I kept looking for ways to make my engineering work overlap with climate science or renewables.

Still, I avoided climate news. I didn’t need to hear over and over that climate change REALLY WAS real to motivate me to take action. I didn’t need to see a picture of an animal choking on plastic; I already had the master plan. Meanwhile, I kept circling climate action from a distance without taking the plunge.

But that changed in 2020. The United Nations issued a report giving us a deadline of 2030 to make steep emissions cuts.

Taking action couldn’t stay theoretical and future tense any longer. So I dove into the research to catch up on what I had missed. And I started — tentatively — talking to people about climate change and my intentions.

And I got wave after wave of bad news. It wasn’t just the tight deadlines, scale of changes needed, and years of deadlock.

It was also the confusing responses I was getting in my conversations about climate change. I’d bring up something I found fascinating, people’s faces would drop. The’d say “Yeah… I should be doing more.” And the conversation stopped there.

We’d all finally grown up! and I was ready to jump into the master plan, but I hadn’t factored in when I was 10 that no one would want to jump with me.

And it was 2020, and the air in California was full of wildfire smoke — a constant reminder of what was at stake.

Defeatism had hijacked the climate conversation and it was everywhere.

Eventually, the gloom shifted just enough for me to start wondering. Maybe we were all so bummed because we couldn’t see through the haze. We’ve all been peppered with directives — reduce, reuse, recycle. Drive less. Fly less. Turn off lights. Don’t buy plastic.

And we try, pushing against a system that wasn’t set up for any of that. But we don’t have a clear picture of how this helps.

We may have a vague idea of our individual reductions adding up to collective reductions — but then, every single one of us would have to cut our individual emissions by over half, and then to zero. We can’t imagine the effort it would take to scale up our reductions by that much. And convincing every single human to do the same? Impossible.

This picture doesn’t add up because it requires us all to be perfect. And worse, it makes us feel like we are failing, every single day.

But let me paint you a different picture. If change could only happen with 100% participation and perfection, change would never happen. But I think we can all agree that sometimes change does happen, even positive change. So — how?

For one thing, you can move society in a positive direction without being perfect. Think of it like electric current. We are the electrons.

When we imagine current flowing through a wire, we might imagine an orderly stream of electrons all moving in the same direction.

“Orderly” current. Illustration by the author.

But actually, even before the current starts, the electrons are moving — randomly, at high speeds, in all directions. 

Before the current starts .

And when we apply a voltage to create current, it still looks like they’re moving at random, except there’s a change you can only see when you look at the wire as a whole. 

When the current starts, the electron motion still looks random.

Each electron shifts its velocity a tiny bit, all in the same direction. You don’t need perfect electrons to create current.

But the subtle shift in electron velocities adds up to a current.

Society is a bit more complicated than electric current. Still, it doesn’t matter that we aren’t each moving in a perfectly sustainable direction as long as our changes line up. And more importantly, pick up speed.

So what’s the voltage that directs us? I called it “the system,” and what I mean is the way all the organizations that touch our lives are set up — what they prioritize and where they get their materials.

We are constantly pushing against the system while trying to influence “our” consumption. What if we tried influencing the system instead?

So how do systems change? I found the answer in one of my math textbooks. Transformation builds under the surface as ideas brew, minds change, and small clusters of supporters gather — all while progress appears to be slow or non-existent, until suddenly, the support reaches a critical mass, and the system transforms rapidly in an emergent process.

Ideas spreading and social change. Illustration by the author.

Nearly every social movement that succeeded followed this pattern of slow, then all at once. To get to that point, a certain percentage of people need to participate (estimated variously as 3.5%, to 25%), but importantly, it’s not 100%.

So don’t think of the climate movement as something you’re guilted into. You can choose to be one of the 25% who become early adopters of change.

And you don’t have to worry about the people you can’t convince. They will change when the system changes because that comes first.

Changing the system requires creativity. The first act of creativity is to imagine the possible paths to transformation.

The second act of creativity is to imagine where you can fit into that picture. Old ideas need to be replaced by new ones — about everything from Social change. Illustration by the authortechnology to our day-to-day lives. The new ideas spread through you.

Social change: where you fit in. Illustration by the author

To make that happen, ask yourself these three questions.

One. What is a movement you want to throw your weight behind? Pick a trend or organization that’s already building, and that you can help accelerate. You can be another piece of its critical mass.

Two. What’s a practical obstacle that’s been keeping you from participating? Anything from not knowing what a word means, to having trouble deciding where to volunteer.

If you have this obstacle, others do too. So brainstorming a solution will help more than just you. That obstacle doesn’t stand a chance against your formidable skills at creative problem solving!

Question Three. What social circles that you’re already a part of, can you share your solutions and experiences with? Sharing in the circles where you can be heard is how your solutions amplify and ripple outward.

We’re facing unprecedented challenges, so our imaginations need to be nimble — zipping like a hummingbird — from the big picture, to our immediate surroundings. From where we’re starting from — to where we want to get to.

We can’t be nimble like this if we’re stuck in guilt and perfectionism, and gazing endlessly within our own homes and wallets at all the things we’re doing wrong.

No movement in history has been made up of perfect people, so stop worrying about the ways you’re not perfect. Perfect people are not required.

Instead, think of all the ways your creativity could accelerate us in the right direction.

If you haven’t already, check out the recording of my TEDx talk! And you can hit ‘like’ on the video if you want to help get the YouTube algorithm to distribute it.

On World Refill Day 2023, Let’s Strategize

It’s on Friday, June 16th.

Photo by Nik on Unsplash

I learned recently that this Friday is World Refill Day.

We can all use the day being on the calendar as a reason to think and talk about refillable containers. Preventing pollution from disposable packaging is a worthy problem, and thinking about it at the same time makes climate action more effective.

Let’s take the opportunity to strategize. We’ll need to in order to build a habit and culture of using reusable containers (for carrying water to drink, buying coffee, and taking to bulk stores to fill with food or cleaning products).

We need to work against the typical hurried lifestyle that society pushes us toward.

As we experiment with the habit of carrying our own containers around, we can identify the snags that get in our way and problem-solve around them. And better yet, share our findings with others who are trying the same thing.

Here are some prompts for you to reflect on how to make reusables a bigger part of all our lives.

Figure out your reusable container logistics

As I wrote in How Do We Increase Adoption of Reusable Coffee Cups?

Let’s think through the logistics of having a reusable mug handy when you need it. There are a few different actions you would need to add to your day:

– (Remember to) pack your cup before heading out for coffee.

– Ask the barista to serve the coffee in your own cup.

– (Remember to) bring your cup back in the house.

– Put the cup into your dishwashing workflow (either the dishwasher or hand-washing).

– (Literally) rinse and repeat.

These actions can become part of your routine if you identify cues for or schedule each of these steps into your week.

Find stores that will refill your container

You can look up package-free stores for food or supplies near you that let you bring and refill your own container with their goods.

The keywords to look for are “package free,” “bulk,” and “zero waste” stores. Your local farmer’s market may also be a good place to buy package free.

I found one guide to package free stores for California: https://www.litterless.com/bulk-food-guide/california. There may be a similar guide for where you live.

If you work at a store or have an ‘in’ to talk to someone who manages one, think about what they can do to make it easier for bulk buyers! Or avoid supporting disposable products in other ways.

When it comes to improving the bulk-buying workflow, and the store itself is where the most leverage is.

Photo by Nationaal Archief on Unsplash. Refillable used to be the default. It’ll look different now, but maybe it can be again.

Remember why

Using refillable containers is part of the larger sustainable idea of using less material overall, by making products more durable and getting more use out of them.

An individual refillable container usually takes more resources to make and has a higher carbon footprint than an individual disposable container, so the advantage comes from being reused. (Not just reusable.)

Having just a few containers and using them for approximately a lifetime is the trick to getting the environmental benefits of less resource use over time and preventing plastic pollution.

So, this can be a tough one, but resist the urge to go out and buy snazzy new mugs, containers, and tote bags, unless you absolutely need them.

Sadly, the way eco-friendly products are marketed can lead us to assume the solution for a bad product is to buy a better product. But in this case, the solution is to buy fewer products.

Which leads me to…

Mend or repurpose something

What are some ways you can get more life out of a product you already have?

Earlier this year, I busted out my sewing kit for the first time and mended a backpack.

A section near the zipper was fraying to shreds, leaving a yawning gap. I’d gotten my fingers tangled in the strands trying to get something often enough to sit down on the carpet, stream a mystery series, and make a project of it.

Photo by the author. The gray strip is some lining I used as an attachment point. Hope it lasts.

I did a pretty rough job, having no sewing experience, but it held together when I took it on a trip! And, boy, did I feel cool. Cottagecore, self-sufficient, and all that good stuff.

Do you have a product you can fix or turn into a functional container? Or something you could decorate to make exciting to use again?

That’s a chance for a potentially fun activity as well as a product. And feeling accomplished.

Using refillable containers takes foresight, and it’s understandable that it doesn’t feel natural to many.

Seconds before running out for errands isn’t the best moment to figure out what container to take.

Instead, let’s take a moment to step back and think strategically, so we make the decision easier in the moment. World Refill Day might be the reminder we need to do that.

Also appears: Medium

About Social Tipping Points and Climate Action


Also known as phase transitions and critical mass. A research roundup

Photo by erin mckenna on Unsplash

Social tipping points are the mechanism by which social change spreads and sparks transformation. In my writing, I frequently talk about social tipping points toward climate action as a goal to aim for.

Here, I dive deeper into the concept of tipping points and its connection to social change with a tour of the research I’ve collected.

I’m hoping this will be a useful reference to come back to whenever discussions of the topic arise.

What are tipping points?

A tipping point is the colloquial term for a phase transition, or the phenomenon where incremental changes in a system reach a critical threshold, leading to rapid transformation.

You may have heard of tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.

This phenomenon goes by many names, since it’s seen in many parts of the natural world, including changing phases of matter, nuclear fission (where the term ‘critical mass’ comes from), ecological shifts, swarm behavior of insects, epidemics, and the rise and fall of societies.

Going forward, I will use the term ‘phase transition’ most of the time.

Phase transitions in everyday life

Phase transitions are a common mental model in popular culture for situation where we keep applying effort, but we don’t see the results until all the pieces click into place.

This blog post on Farnam Street has a good roundup of writing on the concept, and explains:

As a mental model, critical mass can help us to understand the world around us by letting us spot changes before they occur, make sense of tumultuous times, and even gain insight into our own behaviors. A firm understanding can also give us an edge in launching products, changing habits, and choosing investments.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the metaphor of incremental temperature change and the melting of ice to describe habit change.

Writings on technologymanagement, and world peace also use the concept.

How are phase transitions modeled?

The natural examples of phase transitions I mentioned (matter, nuclear reactions, viruses) above involve systems with individual units or ‘agents’. Observations of these systems show evidence of the phase transitions behavior.

Scientists have also developed a variety of agent-based and equation-based mathematical models and simulations to explain the mechanism behind the observed behaviors of the systems.

These models can be run with various adjustments to their parameters to see how they affect the phase transition.

Why does the concept apply to social change?

Often, the models of ‘agents’ in a system are fairly simple. Societies, on the other hand, are made up of humans who are famously impossible to predict or model accurately.

Still, we can extract useful qualitative insights about collective behavior even from simple model.

This is a long ‘un! You can read the rest on Medium (you don’t need to have a Medium subscription).

* * *

Understanding phase transitions has completely revolutionized my approach to climate action.

I constantly think about how my participation connects to a wider dynamic, and that helps me be both more strategic and more hopeful.

Here’s my free resource to overcome overwhelm and find clarity on YOUR personalized next step to protect the environment.

Also appears: LinkedIn

How Do We Increase Adoption of Reusable Coffee Cups?

I’ve been curious about the logistics of reusable coffee cups, since they are a good case study for sustainability in the food industry. (And I love coffee. And mugs.)

Grabbing a quick coffee on the go is ingrained in a lot of people’s lifestyles. What would it take to modify this habit to eliminate waste from the use of disposable cups?

In this post, I’m approaching the question from the point of view of a designer. We can make changes for ourselves, but to really make a dent in the waste problem, we need to increase the overall adoption rate of the changes. 

As I wrote in my recent piece on time poverty, we need to design sustainable behaviors while taking into account everyone’s constraints, including the busiest among us.

Below, I go into the research to get our wheels turning on this design problem.

Bringing your own cup

Customers bringing their own reusable cups is one readily available option to reduce waste. With a few lifestyle adjustments on our part, it can become second nature.

Let’s think through the logistics of having a reusable mug handy when you need it. There are a few different actions you would need to add to your day:

  1. (Remember to) pack your cup before heading out for coffee.
  2. Ask the barista to serve the coffee in your own cup.
  3. (Remember to) bring your cup back in the house.
  4. Put the cup into your dishwashing workflow (either the dishwasher or hand-washing).
  5. (Literally) rinse and repeat.

These actions can become part of your routine if you identify cues for or schedule each of these steps into your week.

One question to consider here is how many reusable cups you will need. Naturally, it depends on how often you do your dishes. If you run your dishwasher a few times a week, you’ll need enough cups to last till the next run.

The environmental tradeoffs work in our favor if we maximize the number of times we use our mugs. This article in Anthropocene Magazine explains why:

Indeed, only with frequent use can one decrease the potential impacts of the reusable cup; it would take between 20 (human health category for a polypropylene travel mug) and more than 1,000 (ecosystem-quality category for all travel mugs) uses, depending on the cup/mug type and the environmental indicator, to make up for the impacts of a single-use cup. If a reusable cup is used fewer times than that, the single-use cup is better for the environment.

What should we do then? Can we help the environment? The answer is yes: by reusing your cup for several years and by limiting the quantity of soap and hot water for washing it, the reusable cup should be the way to go. Limiting your coffee intake could also be something to look at, but that is another problem altogether.

Washing the cups efficiently is important. Here are some estimates around the effects on water use:

Water Footprint Calculator has estimates for the amount of water used in hand washing vs dishwashers for a load of dishes.

Hand washing one load of dishes can use 20 gallons of water, whereas water- and energy-efficient dishwaters use as little as 4 gallons.

…and this Guardian article has estimates for the amount of water used in making disposable cups.

[…] it takes water to brew the coffee (0.05 litres), but even more to make the plastic lid (2.5 litres) as well as the paper cup and sleeve (5.6 litres).

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to compare the water use of reusable cups vs. disposable cups, per drink. Since I’m calculating ‘per drink’, I’m not factoring in the water used to make a reusable cup. I’m assuming you will reuse the cup often enough for it not to matter.

Say you drink 5 cups of coffee a week. The quote above means one disposable cup (with lid) takes 2.1 gallons of water to make, so the water use associated with the cups per week is 10.5 gallons.

With a reusable cups, I’m going to estimate how many more loads in the dishwasher you need because you added reusable cups to the mix. Let’s say you use five reusable cups a week. I think that’s about 1/6th of a dishwasher load (just eyeballing my own dishwasher, I think I could get at least 30 cups in there). So that’s an added weekly water use of 0.67 gallons per week.

Okay! So that was some fun math, and not terribly precise. But it validates that that having a few reusable mugs, using them for as long as possible, and washing them efficiently is a huge improvement on getting a disposable cup every time.

Changing the culture around to-go coffee

Bringing reusable cups has not caught on (yet). Research in the UK suggests that only 5% of hot drinks are sold in reusable cups brought by the customer (as described in this article from Circular Online). I would speculate that the numbers in the US are similar.

One of the challenges of bringing your own mug is that it requires time and thinking ahead. Unfortunately, these are often in short supply.

How did we get here?

I read up on the evolution of the to-go coffee cup and cultural environment that led to it, is as outlined in this fascinating article in Life and Thyme:

In America, we see the coffee cup as a symbol of the modern professional — the marker of a person on the go. We assert that we have no time to spare to sit with a steamy cup, but must take our jolt of caffeine on the road (or down the sidewalk, or up the elevator) to face the day full-force.

[…] In 1907, a Massachusetts lawyer Lawrence Luellen, invented the first disposable cup to stop the spread of germs from these communal cups. His invention, originally called the Health Kup, would develop into what we know as the dixie cup today.

[…] In 1952, the Pan American Coffee Bureau coined the term “coffee break.” This made official the practice that began in defense plants during the war, when tired workers needed a few minutes of rest and a caffeine jolt to make it through their long workdays.
 In 1964, 7-Elevens on Long Island became the first chain stores to offer to-go traveller cups. From there, commuter coffee culture proliferated as chain convenience stores across the country began to carry twenty-ounce behemoth to-go cups, usually as part of a loyalty discount “coffee club.” A 1989 New York Times article referred to this specific travel mug as a “plastic sloshproof wonder” for late-twentieth century commuters.

[…] Starbucks had to standardize their offerings for to-go cups and lids. The company chose the Solo Traveller, a lid designed specifically for drinking on the go. […] There would be no more tearing, pinching or peeling back plastic lids to get to coffee while walking or driving; the traveller lid was ergonomically designed to be sipped from while on the move.

It is like a history of American consumerism, car culture, and hustle culture in miniature!

I guess people reallly like the busy, on-the-go feel of grabbing coffee and power-walking down the street with a briefcase. It kind of goes with the caffeine.

This post from the High Country Conservation Center also points out that online and drive-thru orders, which may be a majority of coffee sales, don’t work with reusable cups.

Personally, I think increasing adoption of customer-brought reusable cups is important, but we shouldn’t count on getting to 100% adoption. According to this article in Bon Apetit:

Disposable coffee cups are here for good, says food historian Cory Bernat, who co-curated the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s American Food & Wine History exhibits.

“When I look at food culture, it’s all about habit, and businesses have a lot more influence over our behaviors than we like to admit,” she says. “I see companies that are very quick to reassure people it’s OK to ask for convenience, and people who are very quick to accept that offer. People just want this thing out of their hands in the easiest way possible.”

There may always be a segment of the population that doesn’t carry a reusable cup. For them, we need to figure out alternatives. From the same Bon Apetit article:

On the other hand, [Matt] Fury of Think Coffee has emphasized compostability in his disposable coffee cups, with his stores using cups from U.K. firm Vegware, while encouraging people to bring in reusable cups.

“The future will be semi-reusable,” Fury says.

Even so, I’d urge that we do everything we can to normalize bringing your own cup, as well as slowing down in general. 

There are several trends already in this direction, as we grow less enamored of hustle culture in general. All we have to do is accelerate them.

Logistical changes at coffee shops

The coffee shop is where the highest leverage changes can happen. After all, they are the ones procuring all the disposable cups in the first place. They can decide whether to change that.

The first and most basic change that coffee shop managers should do is create a workflow to handle customers bringing their own cups, or requesting a ‘for here’ cup. 

In my experience, either of these requests seems to throw baristas for a loop, because their processes are not designed for it. Sometimes the instruction goes through multiple employees in written form, and there is no clear option to include these serving requests.

This is not these employees’ fault! (Please don’t hassle them about it if they get your order wrong. I shudder to imagine what it’s like to serve pre-caffeinated people in the morning.)

Whoever designs these workflows hasn’t thought through these eventualities, and it’s time they did.

Secondly, coffee shops need to replace all their to-go cups with compostable or recyclable options. Standard paper coffee cups are not recyclable because they are lined with plastic. This means that the second they are manufactured, they are destined for the landfill. They have no place in a sustainable economy.

These were the two most fundamental changes. And there are even more innovative options available…

Reusable cup swap schemes

These are schemes where reusable cups are interchangeable. You can buy your coffee in one cup, and return it at the same (or in some cases, different) coffee shop. Your order is served in one of the pre-washed cups they have on hand.

All the washing is done in efficient, industrial dishwashers. 

And it requires marginally less foresight than bringing your own cup — you can grab coffee on a whim, but you have to remember to bring the cup back eventually. Or you don’t, and the cup is yours and you lose the deposit. 

The main concern would be if people used these cups as if they were disposable. That is the worst of both worlds, because as we saw in the first section of this post, you need to use a cup about a 1000 times to get the environmental benefit. So cup swap schemes will still need some behavior change to go with it. Even so, I find the idea promising.

This Daily Grind post outlines the advantages:

“Our staff wash and sanitise the used cups and then place them back into the float, ready for the next customer,” he [Cyrus Hernstadt, Director of Communications at Think Coffee] tells me. “This saves customers from cleaning their reusable cup at home, as well as diverting a single-use cup from going to landfill.”

Although many customers do have their own reusable cups, visits to coffee shops are often spontaneous — meaning it’s easy for consumers to forget to bring them. What’s more, remembering to clean the cup can be a deterrent for some customers.


For baristas, reusable cup swap schemes can help to improve workflow. Instead of having to rinse out a customer’s own reusable cup, they can simply swap it for one of the coffee shop’s prewashed reusable cups.

As well as being more convenient for baristas, it’s also more hygienic.

HuskeeSwap helps to reduce the risk of cross-contamination because the cups are washed onsite to higher food safety standards, rather than being brought into the coffee shop from public transport, a car, or a bag,” Michael explains.

Furthermore, reusable cup swap initiatives are more convenient and accessible for many consumers — especially if they have forgotten to bring their own reusable cup and don’t want to use a disposable cup. In the case of HuskeeSwap, Cyrus explains that cups can be borrowed or stored through the app.

Temporary holding containers

The post from High Country Conservation Center mentions a clever workaround for online and drive-thru orders:

There’s also discussions [at Starbucks] of using temporary holding containers for pre-ordered beverages and then transferring to the customer’s own vessel at the drive-through window or at the counter for pre-orders as well as adding a window for customers to drop off mugs for filling at an earlier point in the drive-through process.

From a design perspective, I find these solutions modular and elegant. It just makes sense to me that there would be alternatives to throwing a cup away every single time you drink (an absurd idea if you think about it) that don’t shift all the work to the customer.

To eliminate the waste from disposable coffee cups, we’ll need a combination of approaches so that we cover all segments of coffee drinkers.

The most important changes happen at the coffee shops themselves. For us regular folks, there are multiple levers that might speed these changes along, including regulation and consumer pressure.

I’ve outlined all the research I found on the subject in the hope that it will spark ideas, whether you’re a customer, designer, coffee shop owner, or just someone who cares about the environment.

Here’s my worksheet resource for having a deeply creative work session!

Also appears: LinkedIn, Medium