Addressing the inconvenient truth of the immense damage that we are inflicting upon our planet by throwing away billions of coffee cups – and vowing to tackle the issue whilst we are comfortably caffeinated – is a brave and noble stride by any measure.
On a more serious note, the concept of a pithily-named “latte levy” is years, if not decades, overdue, so the MPs behind this initiative should be applauded.
Yet with all the coverage and hype around Friday’s government proposal, we’ve only succeeded in reminding ourselves of the problem, and that hardly deserves a pat on the back. We now have to mobilise.
As I’ve argued many times in the context of gender pay gap reporting, knowing the statistics is one thing. Pulling your weight and rolling up your sleeves is quite another.
A 2011 Which? report estimates that 2.5 billion paper cups are thrown away in the UK every year, and everything indicates that this number has surged since. Coffee shops are springing up at a furious pace, and some experts predict the 5,000 or so shops that graced our high streets at the turn of the millennium will have multiplied to 30,000 by 2025.
Government policy clearly has a role to play, and this week’s call to action certainly hits the right note. But the other stakeholders are numerous: manufacturers, shops, waste management companies and, not least, the consumer. That’s me and you: the Deliveroo-ordering, pizza box-binning, plastic straw-sucking, Blue Planet-watching public.
Consider our habits. How much disposable waste do you really get through in a day? Three coffee cups, a sandwich wrapper, six napkins and a Styrofoam box? Or significantly more? And what do you do with all of that garbage?
Richard Kirkman, the UK and Ireland chief technology and innovation officer for resource management giant Veolia, explained recently that consumers need to get used to segregating waste.
In other countries, like Germany, the habit of allocating paper, plastic, household waste and glass to different bins is entrenched in their culture – kindergarten kids are instructed to learn these habits before they can read and write. “Consumers simply need to take responsibility,” Kirkman says succinctly.
Even the Government’s environment department reportedly uses well over 1,000 disposable cups a day. How do we explain that one?
Next up are the manufacturers. Yes, recycling is heroic, but the chain of impact doesn’t stop there. Those recycled products need to be reused. Only a tiny proportion of everyday products is wholly manufactured out of recycled goods, says Kirkman.
We need the infrastructure, technology and investment in place to change that – and if needed, we must incentivise and educate manufacturers to do so. An industrial giant may feel proud if it recycles the lion’s share of its waste. But if the resources it uses to produce are all mined straight from the earth, we’ve tragically failed to see the full picture.
The same theory applies to coffee shops. The used cups may be shunted off into bins promising a greener, more ecological future, but where do the new cups come from in the first place?
We love feeling like we’re doing good. We enjoy the dignity of knowing that we’re saving polar bears, planting trees and keeping ice caps from melting. But protecting the environment is not a cushy job. It requires commitment and logic in many guises.
In a world where consumers are evidently willing to pay a small premium for the luxury of convenience, we need to make sure that we’re not buying our way out of responsibility.
The ecosystem of waste is a complex one, and tackling pollution requires us to address it in its entirety. Disposable coffee cups are strong start. As for how we spend the rest of our day, we can’t afford to be amorphous and frothy.
What you can do
1. So far the MPs’ report is just a recommendation. Have your say: write to your MP supporting the proposal.
2. Tell us what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you send us one of the 100 most useful comments, we’ll forward it on to the Environmental Audit Committee and we’ll send you an Independent-branded reusable coffee cup.
3. Buy a reusable coffee cup – many cafes already offer a discount to customers who bring their own cup. You can find a selection of our recommendations here.
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