Wednesdays Without Plastic: Coffee Quest

“I’ll just give up single-use plastic packaging for Lent,” I said, blithely. And publicly, which was a good thing, because, faced with some very real challenges, I might otherwise have been tempted to quit.

Coffee, for instance, is a challenge. The coffee I like comes in plasticky packaging, and I’m not at all reconciled to giving up my brew. I had me a moment considering what I was going to do about that.

*************

Here, by the way, is a warning about aging for you young ones: as we season, doctors glibly adjust our habits, never mind how much we liked the old ones. So I sat on the stupid paper-covered table in my stupid stiff paper johnny, freezing and in shock (I am not bitter), while the doctor told me my blood pressure was high.

“My blood pressure’s NEVER been high,” I argued. “I’ve always had low blood pressure.”

“Hey, things change as we age,” he said. I don’t know what that ‘we’ business was all about; he looked like a new age Doogie Howser.

Then he asked me about my daily coffee consumption.

I did some quick calculations: where was the sweet spot between ‘doctor needs to know’ and ‘truth’?

“Mmmmm,” I said. “Maybe eight or nine cups?”

“Oh, no,” said New Age Doogie. “No, no, no. You’re going to have to cut that out. Completely.”

I looked at him hard. Was he KIDDING?

“Stop drinking coffee,” I said, slowly and distinctly, just to clarify.

He shrugged. Not only was he not an aging person, he was clearly not a caffeine person, either.

“Drink decaf,” he said. 

Like that was no big deal.

I left his office with a prescription and an attitude, but I did take his advice to heart. I began a structured weaning-off process, and, within a month, I was living in Decaf Land.

After a lot of experimentation, I found two decafs I could live with: a dark roast from Starbucks, and a medium roast from Seattle’s Best.

Both of them come packed in plastic-coated bags.

And I’ve given up the caffeine, but not the coffee. I need that brisk, hot drink to start and gird my day.

So I’m going to need a plastic-free source.

****************

I look up coffee roasters in our area. I find one that looks very promising, a grassroots kind of place that started with coffee lovers roasting their own beans in the back room of an entirely different business altogether. They offer two kinds of decaffeinated beans. They do not have a coffee shop, but they market their beans at all kinds of interesting places.

And it looks as though their beans come in brown paper packaging.

This will be fun, I think. We’ll take a road trip and pick up some beans. I decide to stop at a little market in a Columbus suburb where the beans above are sold, and I locate two other coffee specialists in the same funky, getting-gentrified-but-still-edgy, little town.

The boyos are on board for a Saturday afternoon coffee cruise. I call the little market to insure they have the decaf beans from the grassroots roasters. I talk to Stephe (pronounced Steve), who staffs the wine bar; he goes to look.

Moments later, he picks up again, a little out of breath. There is only one bag of those decaf beans left, he says, and he’ll hold it at the wine bar for me. I give him my name and my thanks.

Then I call a place I’ll call the Rich Dark Cup of Java. Their coffee beans, pictured on-line, look as though they come in a plastic bag. Ian, a young manager, answers the phone at Cup of Java, and I ask him about the packaging.

“Yeah, well,” he says, “the bags we use are kind of plasticky.”

“Okay,” I say. “Well, thanks.”

“Wait!” says Ian. “Wait! We do have brown paper bags we use when we run out of the regular bags. I could put your beans in that.”

I picture the boy opening up a plastic bag of beans and pouring them into a brown bag. I picture him throwing out the plastic bag, and I see myself contributing to plastic waste. I tell him that, and Ian says, oh, no. They get their beans in BIG bags and package them on site. He could do up a brown bag for me and leave it at the counter.

I agree that will work.

I try to pull up the website for the third interesting place, a shop called Yeah Me Too, but it doesn’t have one. The shop’s tiny, if the photos are true; I’m not clear if they only sell hot beverages or if they sell beans, too. One scathing review complains that there’s no place to SIT. But a breakfast blogger says it is the best coffee in Columbus, period.

There’s no phone number. The picture of the shop makes it look a little cramped.

But it’s right down the street from the market where they’re holding my beans, so I put it on the list, and we pack up and pile into the car and head toward Columbus.

***************

The market where I am to meet Stephe is a funky place, with all kinds of imported foods—figs and olives, hard sausages rimed in white mold, and salted fish in tins that peel with a key. There is a whole section of olive oils; there’s a variety of vinegars. There are long refrigerated cases filled with cheeses from Ireland and Israel and darkest Wisconsin. There is a lovely supply of chocolate. And everywhere, there is the shiny gleam of plastic packaging, even in a place with a sensibility carefully balanced between global and locally sourced.

I stop to look at the coffee section before I head to the wine bar. The market offers a healthy variety of beans, most of them of the regionally roasted, artisan variety. As Stephe reported, there’s no decaf in the brand I’m searching for on the shelf.

Mark and Jim go to peer through the shiny glass cases at piles of beautifully fresh meat and fish; a friendly clerk gives them kind of a virtual tour. I head to the wine bar, where I find Stephe, identified by name tag. Stephe has a long and shiny brow; his graying hair starts in the mid-scalp area and sweeps back to curl below his ears. He wears a red vest and a red bow tie and a black and white striped shirt, and he reminds me for all the world of a ringmaster at a very exclusive circus.

And he is gracious and kind. He likes my single-use plastic fast idea, but he thinks I’m going to find it more difficult than I realize. He tells me a little about the people who roasted the beans I gather up; good people, he says, who give back to the community. He hands me the coffee; it is packaged, cheerful and humble, in stiff brown paper.

I collect Mark and Jim and pay for the beans and a few things the boys have gathered.

**************

Yeah Me Too Coffee, the little no-website, no phone number place, is just a few blocks down the street, so we drive there next. It’s a tiny storefront. I push open the door; there’s no one, it seems, inside.

Then a man unfolds himself from behind the counter. He’s tall and thin and it seems like he does a lot of unfolding. He has a distinguished coxcomb of graying hair; he is dressed colorfully, and he is very interested to hear about my plastic-free quest.

They only use, he tells me, one hundred per cent biodegradable packaging.

He swivels to show me the decaf beans. They are in a transparent bin next to a big roaster. The back part of the shop is very clean and very crowded.

Mark and Jim look around. There’s nothing here but coffee. There are two chairs to sit in, but they’re low to the floor, kind of like toddler seats. The boyos wave to me and head out for a walk around the eclectic neighborhood.

The coffee guy tells me the decaf beans are old; he roasted them Tuesday, and here it is Saturday. He’ll give me some as a sample, but he won’t charge me full price, if anything. I ask if I can smell the beans; I take a deep whiff and they smell wonderful. He grinds some for me, fills up a bag, and we settle on five dollars. He tells me he can mail beans to Zanesville, and he writes his email address on the organic, biodegradable, packaging.

*******************

The boyos discovered we were parked in spaces reserved for a dry cleaner’s customers. A mean looking woman came out, scowling, they tell me later, so they got in the car and peeled away. I emerge from the store, and they roar around the corner. I hop in and we make a clean get away. We’re off to Big Rich Cup of Java.

BRCJ is a bustling place, with old hipsters, young urban professionals, young hipsters, some distinguished looking elderly women—all tables are filled. There are cases of muffins and cookies and biscotti, which are not made on site; they are tightly, plastically, wrapped.

I slip off to use the bathroom while Mark orders us drinks and picks up my decaf. When I come back, I find he and Jim have opted for drinks to go, and there are two bags of decaf, two shiny plastic bags, on the counter in front of Mark, who has already paid.

Wait, I say. MY decaf is supposed to be in a brown paper bag.

Mark looks puzzled, and I ask the clerk if he knows about some decaf that Ian left for Pam.

He is cloudy for a minute, but then he clears. The DECAF! In the paper bag! Ian left it for me!

He hands me a paper bag of beans. I thank him and nudge Mark. We need to give back the other decafs and get the total adjusted.

The clerk looks bewildered, and a manager comes over, apologizes for the confusion, and takes the receipt and rings up a new one. Mark thanks him and we wait for our drinks.

I get a steaming black decaf. It has a plastic lid. Jim gets a frozen hot chocolate in a sleek plastic cup with a sleek plastic dome and a thick red plastic straw. We step outside, into the pale sun of a winter afternoon, while Mark waits for his tea to steep.

We’ll take all this plastic home, I say to Jim, and recycle it. He nods solemnly.

But NOW, I say, let me just smell these beans. I am hopeful; my cup of decaf is rich and smoky. I undo the tabs and open up the paper bag.

Its insides are coated with plastic.

I cross Big Rich Cup of Java off my list, and Mark comes out with his tea and we head home.

************

I decide I will taste test the coffee from the market and the coffee from Yeah Me Too over the next couple of days, and decide which coffee to order.

The next morning, Sunday, I make the Yeah Me Too coffee. The beans may have been roasted on Tuesday, but they brew up a rich and delicious pot.

A definite contender, I realize happily.

On Monday, I open the brown paper package I bought at the market. I discover it, too, is lined with plastic. So I grind the beans, brew my morning coffee, and find my decision made. For lovely beans, in non-plastic packaging, it’s all Yeah Me Too.

*******************

So…coffee is sorted. And we have moved on to cloth napkins—to dishcloths really. I stole that idea from an eclectic little diner where we ate a while back; the nubby dishcloths were fun and functional. James and I went to the discount store and bought four packages of eight in a rainbow of colors that complement our Fiestaware.

I bought eighteen cloth hankies, which we’ll put in baskets in the bathrooms when the kleenex run out.

The bulk food store has agreed to package baking supplies for me in the containers I dropped off. We are not quite at plastic-free yet; there are things we need to use up and dilemmas I still need to solve.

But we are on our way.

**********

And one thing I’m finding is that the quest involves a conversation and, sometimes, a connection. Like with the woman at the supermarket who was doing inventory when I was shopping for glass containers. I told her about my plastic fast plans, and she said, “Well, THAT’S got to be good for the environment.” Then she gently nudged the container I was holding from my hand.

“I’m marking these down, anyway,” she said. “I may as well do it now.”

So I went home with bargain glassware. The checkout lady gave me an exasperated grin when I showed up with my greens, newly misted and dripping, not in plastic. I explained, and she rolled her eyes, looking tolerant, and said to the bagger, “No plastic for HER.”

The bagger was unhappy. He held up the glass containers. “Do I have to DOUBLE bags these?” he asked, and the cashier, sighing, said that he did.

Some people are supportive, some people look at me a little cock-eyed, and some people find the whole plastic-free concept to be just a little over the top. But I have milk in a cardboard carton, soft white hankies on which to blow my nose, a lidded container for my egg shells and coffee grounds—composting: that’s a project coming up—, and the feeling that life is shifting, just a bit.

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19 thoughts on “Wednesdays Without Plastic: Coffee Quest

  1. Kim Allen

    Pam, I admire the challenge you
    have taken on . Did the Coffeemania dark roast decaf work for you, although the paper bag is paper, but also shiny, so I don’t know what that means.

    1. Kim, I loved the Coffeemania brew, but they didn’t respond to my email about purchasing via mail. (Maybe I should try again!) I can’t remember what the packaging felt like…maybe it was waxed?

  2. This was great, Pam. I hope you’ll continue to share how you’re navigating this life-changing commitment. If enough of us do it–even part-way, it can be world-changing. You are an inspiration!

  3. I am saved from all this trauma by not liking coffee. I’ve never had a cup of coffee. My aunt and uncle didn’t drink coffee until they were middle-aged, but I’ve never decided to drink it. Or make it. The gardener has to make his own. He has to make for guests. Maybe it’s a gene y’all have I don’t or the other way around?

  4. Hullo, this was a refreshing post to read (a while since I visited, happy to see your blog active). We don’t drink much coffee beans type filter coffee at home here in Britain (UK) and much of our coffee is packaged in reusable/recyclable glass jars – and also contains a lot of chicory. Every home in most regions here has local authority recycling collections. Plastic versus paper versus sand/glass is a conundrum. Waste/sustainability can be mindboggling. I don’t get on with decaff, caffeine’s good for pain, apparently has anti-cancer properties for some folk and although I’m not addicted when I fail to drink coffee I can’t sleep. Guess I’m awkward as ever. A good read, thanks.

    1. It is a little mind-boggling. I’m focused on single-use issues right now; the reports of plastics in sea life boggle my mind. But our focus needs to be broader, for sure! Great to hear from you!!!

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