Coffee cups: a ‘circular economy’

It’s labour day! I think you may at least have earned a cup of coffee by now.

My employer organised a Sustainability Week this year. At the start of the week, I received the following cheerful message:

The University offers a discount of 20p per drink to anyone who brings their own reusable mug […]

Throughout Sustainability Week you can […] pick up your own reusable cup from any University or SU cafe, or from the Zero Waste Shop in the Students’ Union, for only £5 (£6 for a large).

I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that my employer is trying to seduce me to hand some of my hard-earned wages straight back over to them.

But we can recognise in this e-mail a message so many companies are sending us these days. A message which performs a clever bit of PR. We are invited to feel good about replacing our disposable cups with a lasting one. But who was it who gave us the disposable cup to begin with?

Alanthebox via Wikimedia Commons.

Within the span of only a few years, coffee joints across Britain and in other rich countries have replaced ceramic drinking ware with paper and plastic cups. Not just for take-away orders, as had been the case for much longer,* but for customers who ‘sit in’ as well.

When travelling to see family for Christmas this winter, hands frozen, I had difficulty finding a place where I could have a nice sit-down to the tinkle of a warm cup of cappuccino on its saucer, instead of a hasty bite in a soggy piece of cardboard. There was one such place left in the entire station: a commiserating passer-by pointed it out to me as she saw me protesting at another coffee counter.

The sensual pleasures of hot beverages aside – and they are of eminent importance – there is also an ecological side to this story, not to mention the economic side.

As to the ecological side, my employer’s message itself already informed me of the following:

Of the 2.5 billion single-use cups used in the UK every year, only 1% are recycled.

And the makers of my own reusable travel mug (which I of course speedily procured) explain how I am helping to remedy this:

The outer thermal insulation layer of [the reusable cup] is made from used paper coffee cups. Every one of us throws away 350 paper coffee cups each year on average. By switching to [this reusable cup] you save these from landfill and contribute directly to the recycling of the used coffee cups that slip through the net. (company website)

And so, I am now the proud owner of

One great cup made from 6 rubbish ones. (product leaflet)

It is these and similar data which not only the sellers of travel mugs use (and I don’t blame them, in as far as they operate independently from the coffee sellers), but the PR-departments of cafés bombard us with when urging us to carry around our own durable cups. We must be very bad people do be doing this to our planet (to be sure, I think we are – but that’s stuff for another post).

Yet such durable cups form a solution to a problem that was never there to begin with. Or rather: they form a solution to a problem that was created only recently by the coffee companies themselves, and in full awareness of creating it; the same coffee companies who are now making us feel guilty for the paper cups they introduced.

For of course, coffee bars’ own old-school ceramic cups had no larger ecological footprint than the ones we now carry around with us. On the contrary: professional whiteware lasts far longer than the average plastic or bamboo travel cup you buy on the high street.

So let us move on from the ecological story to the economic one:

If Adam Smith were still alive, he might have said: what we see here is yet another marvellous example of how economic incentives – getting 20p off your coffee – stimulates moral behaviour and benefits society as a whole.

Karl Marx, on the other (quite visible) hand, might call it yet another marvellous example of the owners of large companies shifting the responsibility for their resource depletion onto the individual consumer and worker (and most of us are both).

Now Adam Smith was a clever guy, but he does not seem to always have been very precise in describing where the benefits go. Not only is it now the customers’ responsibility to buy a cup, previous to visiting a coffee joint; they also have to carry it around in their bags (leaky and all) and do the cleaning (of their bags, too), a cleaning which is both economically and ecologically less efficient than professional cafés can do it.

Here it may be good to remind ourselves that labour performed in rich countries makes up the largest part of the cost of anything we buy, far greater than coffee beans or hot milk. Therefore, companies can save a fair bit of money through such measures. What this also means, is that the costly labour which is now performed for free by coffee consumers, would otherwise have provided jobs for people.

All this while not so long ago, it used to be a customer’s reasonable expectation that a café would take care of all this. What business are cafés in, if not that of bringing us cups of coffee? So, to look at it in terms of money instead of work: half the product that we used to get when we gave two pounds to a coffee seller, is now provided by ourselves. Instead of coffee and cup, we now just get coffee. We only still get half our money’s worth.

And all it took for coffee companies to convince us to donate them a pound every time we buy a hot drink, was a few years of making us drink from paper cups, plus some clever guilt-tripping.

We are a forgetful people.

 

* though not always! A century or so ago, people would bring their own vessels to filling points. Of course, those vessels were not filled with American barista coffee, but with water, soup, or potatoes.

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