Here’s my solution to the landfill mountain of plastic coffee cups: bring your own

A coffee house is not a destination of choice to spend hours of enjoyment. It’s been reduced to a calling point, where busy people queue to get fuel, leaving clutching huge containers of liquid as if they were badges of merit

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 18 March 2016 19:09 GMT
The Environment Minister has suggested that a coffee cup tax could work in a similar manner to the recently introduced plastic bag tax
The Environment Minister has suggested that a coffee cup tax could work in a similar manner to the recently introduced plastic bag tax (Getty)

Forget designer handbags. For the past few years, the must-have accessory for both sexes is a large plastic-coated coffee cup. This ugly object announces to the world: “I’m not one of life’s loafers, I’ve got places to go, people to see.”

Once, coffee houses were where Johnson and Pepys spent hours catching up on gossip, where merchants did business and met important contacts. Now, a coffee house is where yummy mummies park jumbo buggies (emergency nappies available for any mishaps) for mid-morning chats, while a silent army of wannabe workers stare at screens, furiously tapping away.

A coffee house is not a destination of choice to spend hours of enjoyment. It’s been reduced to a calling point, where busy people queue to get fuel, leaving clutching huge containers of liquid as if they were badges of merit. Competition is fierce to win our allegiance. You can’t just pick any chain – it’s got to be one that “respects” the planet, whose beans were tended by properly paid workers, and which is “committed to recycling”. Coffee has stopped being about a simple shot of caffeine. Now it comes with a political message and a yucky picture on the froth, served by smiley baristas who claim to care about our day.

Yet the shocking fantasy of politically correct coffee was exposed this week, when it emerged that those cups proudly emblazoned with the recycling symbol are anything but. Their polythene-coated interior can be processed only in specialist plants, and of the seven million cups that are used every day, almost all (99 per cent) will end up in landfill.

After this scandal was exposed by environmentalists, companies rushed to claim they were not guilty. Costa announced that, unlike its rivals, its cups were accepted in mixed paper recycling – an assertion that was swiftly demolished by experts, who stated categorically that it was incorrect. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called Costa’s statements “greenwash of the worst and most cynical kind”.

We have an extremely ambivalent attitude to environmental issues. Weight-watching walkers clutch small plastic water bottles for any toddle of more than 100 yards. They are fighting flab and decimating the planet at the same time. I don’t care if they are recycling the same bottle every day; they should never have bought one in the first place. Instead of simply taxing sugar, the Government should tax all plastic bottles and coffee containers that can’t be recycled with household waste.

But I digress: the point is that the UK is on track to miss EU targets of recycling 50 per cent of domestic waste by 2020. We have improved our recycling rates by only 3.6 per cent since 2010. There’s a very simple way to drink coffee without harming the planet: it involves using something called a cup, which usually has a handle. You can wash it up and reuse it for years. Isn’t that marvellous?

For several months now, I’ve made a large cafetière of coffee each morning. I drink one cup and then carry the rest to work in another fantastic gadget called a vacuum flask. Everyone who smells my coffee (imported Italian roast beans) wants some. I smile smugly, knowing I am the true environmentalist in the room – and, unlike any of the major coffee chains, I am not basing my tax affairs outside the UK.

Art is strong enough to take on politics and win

Is art sullied if it gets subverted by pressure groups and politicians? Adele recently joined the list of whingeing pop stars who don’t want right-wingers using their songs. She was particularly offended by presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s playing her hits at his rallies, but I have limited sympathy.

Surely art can survive being plagiarised, lampooned and appropriated by those we might find offensive. Great art is in the public domain; it belongs to everyone, even people we don’t like.

The “Mona Lisa” has been parodied countless times, and yet the original is still a spellbinding piece of work. Sir Antony Gormley has got in a lather because Brexit campaigners projected a brash slogan on to his work The Angel of the North – “Vote Leave, Take Control”. No one minds when the Angel is festooned with a giant Newcastle United football shirt, but any political message is a step too far. The artist has sent a solicitor’s letter to Vote Leave, claiming that the projection “suggested a false endorsement” for its campaign. Ironically, the statue was partially funded with money from the EU.

Gormley has form when it comes to tampering with his creation. Two years ago, the supermarket chain Morrisons, fighting a price war with its rivals, projected a huge baguette on to the artwork. “To see it trivialised like that was shocking and stupid,” the artist ranted.

I was lucky enough to be present when the sculpture was hauled into position one Sunday afternoon in 1998, and I remain a fan of the work – but this Angel is sturdy enough to survive the occasional stunt.

Theatres prove culture does have a life beyond London

The perfectly accurate complaint that arts funding is too focused on London, to the detriment of the rest of the country, has been taken up by this newspaper, focusing on the closure of several small (and highly regarded) museums. Regional theatres are also struggling to survive and I try to go regularly.

I made the journey last week to Worthing to see Toast, an early work by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) which received five-star reviews and was sold out during its brief run at the Park Theatre in London last year. It stars Matthew Kelly with a very strong cast, and is set in a 1970s bread factory in the North that’s threatened with closure.

Arriving in Worthing at 7pm on a weekday is like entering a ghost town. God knows how the cast members keep their spirits up playing to about 160 unresponsive people. Go and see Toast while it’s touring. It’s fantastic.

Bean’s new play The Nap (about corruption in professional snooker) has just opened – again, with good reviews – at the Crucible in Sheffield, which has hosted the world championships since 1977. Once again, I shall be making a pilgrimage to the regions, and hoping that the locals up north exhibit more signs of life than the lethargic lot in Worthing.

There are some men who just don’t know their place

Silvio Berlusconi has a spookily old‑fashioned idea of what women are useful for – hosting his parties, agreeing with every bon mot that falls from his lips, and pole dancing.

The old dog surpassed himself this week by declaring that a pregnant female politician should not run in the election for Mayor of Rome because “a mother cannot be a mayor... being a mayor means being in your office 14 hours a day”. The target of his abuse, Giorgia Meloni, has pointed out that Rome was founded by twins, breastfed by a wolf who is the symbol of the city.

Any woman brave enough to run for office in Italy has to run the gamut of sexist jibes – a candidate for Mayor of Milan dropped out after being criticised about her appearance and her weight.

Mr Berlusconi has undergone extensive cosmetic and follicular remodelling to fight the ageing process. Unfortunately, the updating did not extend to his brain.

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