Just last week I bumped into an advertisement on the streets of my hometown. It was a campaign by an alliance of public services, private sector and NGOs for establishing reusable coffee mugs instead of disposable coffee-to-go paper cups. I am sure you have come across similar campaigns where you live. The campaign called itself by the witty name of the “Better-World-Cup“. Also notable its twin sister campaign offering a colourful “My-Cup-for-Berlin” reusable coffee mug, made from bamboo and silicone. Such campaigns are popular not only in Germany but also in the UK. The naive safe-the-world-hypocrisy hidden underneath the campaign let me want to bang my head against the next wall. But let me explain why I think such well intended campaigns are a distraction from real change and at worst a false solution in the transformation efforts of their creators.
The campaigners outlined the problem as such, that each year 170 million disposable cups were ending their life in the trash, or worse, on the streets of Berlin. Apparently the average Berliner throws away 49 cups per year. Statistically a disposable cup is used for about 15 min and then thrown away. The production of one cup emits 30 g of CO2 into the atmosphere and needs 1/2 l of water in the process. The campaigners must have thought that such a thoughtless waste production must be put to an end – rightly so!
You might ask, what could possibly be wrong with such campaigns? In principle nothing, but for me the main message that prevails is that as long as you use a reusable cup for your coffee-to-go your effectively an eco-hero, don’t you worry about were your coffee comes from, how far it traveled, how much water was needed in its production, etc. I believe that the focus on reusable cups provides a false solution, namely not challenging the coffee-to-go mentality, but simply proposing a different way of how to take away your coffee.
Further, the rhetorics give participants the impression of making a sacrifice by actually not doing much at all. In my eyes the campaigners should not make such a fuss about this tiny change to everyday life, at least not standing for itself.
Besides, I have a bad feeling about how many resources are used for such a reusable cup and how often it has to be used to offset the greater production costs against the petty ecological costs of paper cups. How much water and raw material are used for a much more sturdy cup and how much CO2 is emitted? How many hundred times must the reusable cup be used before it has a less negative impact than the paper cup and is it realistic that it will be used that many times before thrown away?
For me the campaign becomes an hypocrisy when we look at the relative scale of environmental problems in our society and how much effort is put into this particular campaign as opposed to others which would be much more effective, like promoting to drive less in the city.
I want to give you an example of the relative importance of the paper cup problem. Let’s put the 30 g CO2 emissions of paper cup production into comparison, as standing alone it does probably not tell you anything. The Berlin metro claims to emit 71 g per person per kilometer. In other words the average Berliner, with her 49 paper cups per year, adds 1470 g CO2 to the atmosphere per year, which comes down to travelling once 20 km by metro, a distance that many urban people travel each day. Obviously I have not considered other resources such as water and wood for the cup in this on-the-back-of-a-napkin calculation.
Mike Berners-Lee, a UK researcher, who commits his life to calculating the ecological footprint (a measure of how ecologically friendly something is, or is not) for nearly everything, was once asked by a friend whether it was ecologically more sustainable to use an electrical hand drier or disposable paper towels after washing your hands. The researcher told him that he should not worry, because the man was living a jet-setter business life, frequently traveling on long-distant flights, and that in relation to the ecological footprint of flying the importance of how you dry your hands is completely irrelevant. Thus, focusing on flight emissions rather than paper towels would have been more apropriate for that man. This is another example of relative scale. If you would like to know more, I highly recommend reading ‘How Bad are Bananas?’, a book by Mike Berners-Lee, it is illuminating.
What I want to say with this anecdote is, that the question whether you use reusable or disposable cups, should come after a long list of things to consider when you truly want to reduce your ecological footprint on this Earth, like driving less, flying less, not buying a new phone every two years, etc. Moreover, I would argue that it would probably suffice to drink one coffee less per week and then don’t worry what you drink it from, it safes water and CO2 as well. According to an example by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark boiling the water for one black coffee emits 21 g CO2, but when you have it with milk you already look at 340 g CO2 for a large latte, or should I say, the CO2 equivalent of more than 31 paper cups.
Naturally, you could also use a different technique of drinking coffee, which is sitting down in the Café and enjoy your coffee from a (reusable!) ceramic cup, or quickly slurp it down at the bar, italian style. I am sure the campaigners have thought about this and in times of Slow Food campaigns why shouldn’t they?! Did they not aim for such a lifestyle change, because it seemed too much to ask from the urban hipster or the stressed business woman?
Let me conclude with a smart-ass statement: The greenest consumption is always no consumption at all. In case you want to become a reusable cup hero anyways, the Independent newspaper rated the best reusable cups for you – bless them!
Just to make this crystal clear, I do not say you should not worry about producing waste with your coffee drinking habits. Rather, that focussing on this matter deviates your ecologically conscious mind away from habits that would actually make a true impact. Of course it is much more of a sacrifice to fly less or quit flying altogether, than just swapping to a resuable coffe cup. Just, don’t let yourself be fooled!
Greetings from the moral high ground and don’t forget to recycle! Thoughts and comments welcome!
Better-World-Cup Campaign Site (GER). (Last visited 12/01/2018)
My-Cup-Berlin Campaign Site (GER) (Last visited 12/01/2018)
Mark Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark (2010). What’s the carbon footprint of … a cup of tea or coffee? (Last visited 12/01/2018)