Your country needs YOU to fight the War on Waste

Having watched the brilliant Hugh’s War On Waste last night, like many other people, I am shocked and disappointed that so many big UK coffee chains – brands many people love – are misleading their customers about the recycling, or otherwise, of their coffee cups. Mainstream customers (as opposed to green keenies) expect businesses to make the right sustainability decisions for them, so they don’t have to worry about it. They certainly don’t expect to be misled.

Providing takeaway cups that are more easily recycled is essential now and I hope Starbucks, Costa, Nero, Pret, AMT and all the other big chains follow suit. Yes, the recycling of resources – cups, bottles, metals, food, anything – is much better than incinerating or landfilling, but re-use is so much better in terms of resource efficiency. Much or most of the energy, paper, plastics that have gone into producing a cup is lost when it goes through any recycling process.

However, I am not sure if Hugh has missed a trick slightly by focusing so much on the responsibility of businesses. As well as lobbying coffee chains to be better, the bigger opportunity is for us all to change our habits and take a reusable cup of some description out with us. A brilliant Keep Cup (my normal choice), a flask, a regular mug. It doesn’t matter. The resource impacts and overall cost differences are mighty. Oh and it tastes better.

We know it can be done. The introduction of a charge on single-use plastic bags reduced their use by around 80% in the first few months and most shoppers got used to taking a reusable bag of some description with them most of the time.

Effective behaviour change requires an understanding of what the issue or obstacle is, and putting the right incentives in to bring about that change. Starbucks have to be applauded for providing an incentive for re-usable cups and I hope that the other chains follow suit. But, legislation worked on carrier bags, why not on coffee cups? If we all paid 5p extra for that £2 drink, would it make a difference?

It’s a similar issue with the wonky veg, on which I won’t dwell long, here. Supermarkets are doing their bit by providing ranges of products that are not shiny or straight, or adapting the rules on what they will sell . However, until we as shoppers are really clear that it is the taste and not the shape that matters, and vote with our feet by purchasing those products (and say so in focus groups), this is only ever going to be a sideline issue.

Whether we’re talking about coffee cups, wonky veg or anything else, it is a combined responsibility to do the right thing – shared by both provider and purchaser, retailer and shopper. We have to stop blaming only the businesses and also take personal responsibility. Then we might make using reusable cups and eating wonky veg as normal as carrying a bag for life.

Mark Varney is director of food at FareShare 

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