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Coffee anyone?

In 2017 The Nursery predicted that 2018 would be the year of the Reusable Cup. As awareness of the waste built up by millions of morning latte habits has grown, we felt sure consumers would be seeking a better more permanent alternative to all those paper cups, plastic lids and corrugated surrounds clogging up litter bins. The shocking truth is that the UK throws away 2.5 billion paper coffee cups every year and only 1 in 400 is ever recycled. These cups have a paper exterior with a plastic lining and are therefore very hard to recycle. Most will end up in landfill.

We had seen disposable cups in the shops and read the reports in the papers. We had all watched The Blue Planet and we know if David Attenborough wants us to reduce our plastic usage we are all going to sit up and take notice.

I was pleased to receive a re-usable cup as one of my Christmas presents and even more pleased to see that Pret, my coffee shop of choice, would offer me 50p off a coffee served in a re-usable cup. Every morning since 2 January I have been ordering my skinny cappuccino and leaving the coffee shop in a cloud of self-satisfaction. Not only am I saving money, I’m virtue signalling like crazy.

Rather to my disappointment I have not yet seen anyone else do the same. The tipping point does not seem to have arrived – yet. By contrast the anti-plastic campaign is riding high. Everywhere schools and workplaces are pledging to reduce plastic, bars and restaurants are banning plastic straws and the Daily Mail is keeping up the pressure by waging its own war on plastic waste.

I’m clearly ahead of the curve. But why?

Perhaps we can draw a parallel with plastic bags. I had fought a battle with plastic carrier bags for a long time. I cared about the planet, I knew they were a bad for the sea-birds so I tried to bring my own whenever possible. However shop assistants would keep insisting on loading all my purchases into a plastic bag which I then politely but firmly insist they put back. And then the plastic bag charge came in and everything changed.

The baristas are looking at me the same way as the shop assistants did before the plastic bag charge, I’m a pain – something just a little bit different always upsets the system. I often have to wait longer for my cup to be filled than other people.  I once had my coffee cup returned to me filled too full, with coffee slopping out over the sides. My reusable cup is too tall to fit comfortably under the spout from the coffee machine.

I am the difficult customer who has to be placated.

I suspect the pricing system works against the eco-conscious - if you get money off for bringing your own cup you are being rewarded for your environmental concern but you are being positioned as a special case. The default is to pay full price. Being green becomes the exception, not the rule.

What if it were the other way round and you paid for your plastic cup? So instead of getting money off for carrying your own cup, you got charged more for a disposable cup? And the baristas asked if you wanted to pay for a disposable cup? The default price would then become what gets charged with the reusable cup, and those who wanted plastic would have to pay extra. Instead of the virtuous getting rewarded, the polluter would get penalised. What difference would that make?

Pret are determined to make things difficult for me. Yesterday I forgot my cup and had to go back to the bad old days of disposability. The barista gave me a friendly smile and….offered me my coffee on the house.  

Clearly we’ve still got a way to go.

By Lucy Banister

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