Here’s a scene of woe to whet your appetite: Imagine it’s 8:33 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and you stayed up the prior night watching video compilations of Glee musical numbers. You’re tired, and need something in your system, stat. Luckily Pi Café, with all its Fogbuster, Hazelnut, and Sumatra coffee glory, is on the way to your class. You resolve to make a pit stop and pick up some of that sweet, sweet morning juice.

After you’ve arrived and filled your cup with the dark, bitter liquid, you make your way to the table by the window to grab a cup holder and a lid. The sleeves are clearly new; they’re not the cardboard-brown and green that you’re familiar with, but black and yellow with the words “Pierce Bros” (the company that provides the Usdan and Pi coffee) on them. Not too concerned, you take a sleeve and put it over your cup, as usual, and proceed to your class.

Cue: Disaster. Halfway to class, the sleeve suddenly breaks, causing you to drop your coffee (Size large! Almost full!) all over your shirt and jeans. It’s seeping into your clothes, which are now plastered against your skin, and you can feel the hot liquid turning to cold, clammy stickiness in seconds. You’re dripping wet, you have no coffee, and also it’s raining outside (I forgot to mention that, but it’s definitely raining). This is your Tuesday morning.

This scene, as I have laid it out to you, happened to me about a week ago. I have not recovered from it, and I’m not certain if I ever will. It was there and then that I realized the distressing nature of the new black and yellow Pi Café cup sleeves, and this realization led me down a path of contemplation about cup sleeves in general. How necessary are they? How environmentally friendly? And if they’re just going to break, what the hell’s the point?

To back up, the coffee sleeve was invented by a man named Jay Sorensen in 1991 under the fabulous name “Java Jacket.” His inspiration arose from a situation much like mine: In 1989, he was pulling out of the drive-through of a coffee shop and burned his fingers through the cup, forcing him to drop the scalding coffee into his lap. This boiling-hot annoyance was the spill that launched a thousand sleeves. Sorensen went about designing a corrugated paper sleeve that fits most coffee cups, and then began selling them, first out of his trunk, then in a coffee trade show in Seattle, where they took off. He eventually built over 1,500 clients, and billions of Java Jackets are sold each year.

Java Jackets, as far as a paper item can go, are fairly sustainable. They’re primarily recyclable or compostable, and often made of reclaimed materials. Look on the modern Java Jacket website, and you’ll read a seemingly-sincere statement about the environmental effect of the jackets.

“We take our impact on the environment very seriously,” reads the page. “Java Jackets are recyclable/compostable. They are printed on post-consumer paper and use food-safe ink.”

On a more artistic level, the coffee sleeve is considered a small work of art by those who pay attention to the value of little inventions. It went on display in the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2004, in a collection called “Humble Masterpieces,” along with Legos and Post-It notes, among other objects.

“The reasons for inclusion were very straightforward: a good, sensible, necessary, sustainable (by the standards at that time) solution for a common problem,” said MoMA’s curator Paola Antonelli of the sleeve, as noted in Smithsonian Magazine. “While modest in size and price, these objects are indispensable masterpieces of design, deserving of our admiration.”

So, the coffee sleeve has a neat history, one that is present in our very own University, across our cafes and dining centers. By this point, sleeves have become so deeply ingrained in the habits of coffee drinking that they’re often not noticed.

But at Pi Café, as aforementioned, there have been cycles of different sleeves over the course of this semester, and these switches have been noticed, at least by me. There are times when no sleeves are present, and times when the sleeves are the classic cardboard, with corrugated insides, and green, eco-looking writing. The switch to the black and yellow sleeves, which are slightly more plastic-y in feel, was another change—one that I didn’t welcome.

The importance of the sleeve, as noted by both its creator and its curator, is to protect a coffee-drinker from coffee heat and spillage. The black and yellow Pierce Bros sleeves tend to break at the joining of one end of the sleeve to the other, perhaps because they get overheated. The glue that binds one side to the other just stops holding. I have never gotten a Pierce Bros sleeve that hasn’t broken on me, and when I’ve looked around Exley at the folks with coffee cups, I’ll see dozens of broken sleeves littering the tables and the floors. In general, the black and yellow sleeves are unsuccessful at preventing spillage, and subsequently, do not protect you from coffee heat. As such, they fail miserably at their very purpose.

Luckily, Pi has, in the past few days, reverted back to the original brown and green sleeves. These sleeves, at least to me, tend to do their job somewhat better. I’ve never had one break on me. And fair to the history of coffee sleeves as made of recycled or reclaimed material, the sleeves read “100% recycled fiber, minimum 60% Post Consumer fiber.” They’re an “Ecocontainer” product, which sounds at least a little environmental. They’re also compostable (though many students will throw them in the trash all the same).

I couldn’t find information online or on the sleeves themselves about the environmental impact of the Pierce Bros sleeves. However, the lack of clear information on the sleeve itself isn’t helping their case. And the sleeves freaking break! Which is the worst! So at least between the Pierce Bros Sleeves and the brown Ecocontainer sleeves, the Ecocontainers certainly win.

To change trajectories a little bit though, the best option, always, is using a reusable mug or Thermos. If I had been doing that in the first place, I wouldn’t have any of the problems I had with the sleeves, and the environment would be better for it. I do tend to use my Thermos fairly frequently, and I’ve also recently downloaded the Cupanion app, which gives a user free coffee after ten uses of the reusable device. In a small way, I’m thinking, perhaps it’s good that the Pierce Bros sleeves break, because maybe fewer students will use them and will switch to the more sustainable reusable method. I don’t mean to turn this piece into a plea for more sustainable practices of coffee drinking. But I kind of do.

If you just need to use coffee sleeves, however, maybe because you have sensitive hands or you’re in a rush and forget your mug, try to find ones that are made of reclaimed material and recyclable or compostable. Most importantly though, try to find ones that don’t break. Because no matter how environmentally-friendly your sleeve is, if it means you drop your coffee, it’s bad at the very thing it’s designed to do. And that, to me, is almost as heartbreaking as clammy, coffee-covered legs on a rainy Tuesday.


Emmy Hughes is a member of the class of 2020. She can be reached at and on Twitter as @spacelover20

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