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Paper or Plastic?

Crossroads Archive

The other day as I was about to pick up my "tall cappuccino" drink order at Starbucks, I asked the barista creating this concoction if she would mind not putting the plastic lid on top of the paper cup. "It's company policy," she told me, "I have to serve you your cup of coffee with the plastic lid on top." I replied, "I don't really want one, and as soon as you give it to me, I will just take it off and throw it into the trash can anyway."

There began a nuanced series of negotiations that nearly eclipsed in complexity the recent U.S. attempt to get the United Nations to pass a second resolution on Iraq. However, using my best negotiation skills, we were able to reach détente: The barista agreed that she wouldn't put a plastic top on the cup, and as she was forbidden by company policy to serve it to me without one, I was permitted to reach over the counter and grab the topless cup myself. Victory! Now the wonderful foam in the cappuccino stays in the cup and doesn't get plastered up against the inner surface of the plastic lid.

These plastic lids-I'm sure you know what they are: the ones that force you to drink through a slit that reduces the fragrance of a freshly brewed cup of java, while supposedly preventing accidental spillage of hot coffee upon one's corpus. They have apparently become de rigeur since a notorious lawsuit against a well-known fast-food restaurant wherein a patron was burned after spilling a cup of hot coffee. Since apparently nobody can be trusted to have sense enough to understand that a hot cup of coffee in the wrong hands is a potentially dangerous weapon, we are now forced to receive our coffee covered in despicable and environmentally unsound plastic tops.

The jury that ruled against the restaurant in that infamous case no doubt failed to consider the millions of dollars that would thereafter be wasted in needless and probably not-very-effective plastic lids, let alone the environmental damage resulting from their disposal. If you stop to consider that McDonald's alone serves a billion cups of coffee a year, the number of plastic disks needlessly incinerated each year begins to boggle the mind. Talk about a weapon of mass destruction-we have again met the enemy, and shame on us!

OK, so the only thing this issue has in common with health care is the deleterious effect of a legal-tort system run amok. At least Starbucks didn't make me sign a release indicating that I understand and accept the dangers of ordering a hot cup of coffee.

Informed consent at fast food restaurants? What's to be next: drive-thru HIPAA? More about HIPAA to come.Dr. Bill Brody, President, Johns Hopkins University