Coffee cups and waste reduction

When we think about waste reduction, disposable coffee cups are maybe not the first thing that springs to mind. But then the coffee outlets such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero etc.  became well established one after the other throughout the 1990s and early 2000’s and the “paper” cups and little plastic lids to avoid your spilling the hot liquid all over you became a fairly common sight throughout the Western world and then around the globe. This new style of consuming a drink which should perhaps be more of a treat and best consumed in peace and tranquillity than gulped down hastily on a train or while scurrying down the street, was very much in league with the formation of new corporate identities, our perception of high achievers being always on the go and the philosophy of moving ahead of the corporate herd, despite the fact that these people are very often little more than a mere cog in the wheel.

It seems to have caught on at a different pace in different countries (quite literally). I can, for example, remember the horrified looks on the faces of the members of staff in a bakery in the small town of Prades in Catalan France when I asked for a takeaway coffee in 2013. “Mais non”, they reminded me, “nous sommes une boulangerie!”. Yes, indeed they were a bakery, and why would I drink coffee in there standing up or worse while walking outside?!

That is just something that won’t do, as you need to sit down, and of course, there is a large gap between country and city when it comes to how things are done. Many citizens of London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, New York, Kopenhagen, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, Auckland, to name but a few, seemingly can’t operate without the instant caffeine fix, while it seems to be that the sizes that are sold are also getting increasingly bigger. Consequently, so have the receptacles in which the brew is sold, along with sugary bakery products, but that is another story. So if in all of the aforementioned cities and many other places millions of people have their takeaway coffee while rushing to their next business meeting after peeling themselves out of bed after three hours sleep, how much waste is actually produced?


The question is, if 2.5 billion “paper” coffee cups a year are sold and consequently thrown away just in the UK, not to mention the number of all those around the globe, what can possibly be done, now that it is so much part of what we consider to be our way of life and so ingrained in our urban culture? Once again, this is not the case everywhere, as I have seen very few of them around where I live, but as soon as I enter the bigger town of Dumfries, the scenery changes of course.

Perhaps it is time to change one’s tune as it cannot only be left to us, the consumers themselves, as we are very often made to feel that correct waste disposal is our sole responsibility. But what if there is no alternative? If we are handed out cups or plastic bags under the false premise that these things will be reliably recycled if we just do our bit and just stick it in the right bins and if that doesn’t happen it would be our fault? What if we were kept in the dark and the materials used are not 100% recyclable? Do we honestly know what happens after we have put them in a recycling bin?

So in this respect, the following maybe comes in as a piece of good news for a change.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is again campaigning to address this problem. It is a good thing to know that a well-known celebrity feels it incumbent upon him to address this, as people and especially those who are responsible for a lot of it, are more likely to listen.

It seems that the real issue here isn’t the fact that we think these cups are a 100% recyclable or that the public wouldn’t do anything such as putting them into a recycling bin at work or at home. The fact is that a company called Simply Cups in Cumbria still only recycle a quarter of a per cent of all the cups we throw away, as Fearnley-Whittingstall was able to find out. So if a large amount of the waste is still simply incinerated or ending up in the landfill, it brings up the same problem such as polluting our oceans no matter how responsibly we try and dispose of our waste. And that is because the materials which are used won’t allow for it.

One has to challenge the big companies, especially when they started of ecologically sound as Starbucks once did in Seattle in the 1970’s when all they wanted to do was to sell freshly roasted coffee beans. They are the ones who must tackle it as they have the means to do it. If it is all simply left to the consumer, it is almost impossible to handle the pressing problem. It is the transparency we need.

So, watch out for the event when Hugh takes his “coffee cup battle bus” to Costa and Starbucks in London on 14th March.

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