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.


Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted an eighteenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward one century, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.


Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.


Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.


The ‘no milk, no sugar’ generation

CC BY 2.0, Voedingscentrum, 2016

CC-BY-2.0, Voedingscentrum 2016

The Dutch government-funded Nutrition Centre just published its new guidelines on healthy eating. One of their most important recommendations: drastically limit the intake of sugar. Strikingly, many Dutch people have already been doing this. Not by refraining from cake or biscuits, but by no longer taking any milk and sugar in their tea. Even the coffee is blacker than ever. The difference this makes is 6 to 8 grams of sugar per cup.

A striking proportion of young people nowadays prefers to take their drinks ‘straight’. We might call them the ‘no milk, no sugar’ generation.

They do not do this for overt health reasons; they just think adding milk or sugar is not really necessary. Since a variety of loose-leaf green and black teas and freshly ground coffee seem more widely appreciated and easier to get by again these days, it makes sense to get a good taste of the drink itself, unobscured by extra flavours.

Green tea, CC-BBY-3.0 Lisa Amy 2015

Green tea, CC-BY-3.0 Lisa Amy 2015

I suspect that some people find such preferences ‘difficult’, but the no-milk-no-sugar people actually seem in search of ways to make life simpler. Not easier: they can spend quite some time looking for the right shop, or at home grinding their own beans. But simpler: consisting of fewer things.*

The same people who form the no-milk-no-sugar generation, may for instance also choose not to have a car (of course, the example for this was set years ago, but it seems that a greater proportion of affluent people is participating this time); or choose to do less housework (as I suggested in a previous post). They seem to eat less salt as well.

Has a no-milk-no-sugar generation also risen in other countries, I wonder?


* Remarkably, the same people often do not like the taste of milk, unless it has been turned into yoghurt, hot chocolate, etc.