I was really pleased to see another episode of Hugh’s War on Waste back on the TV listings, and sat down to watch with much excitement. I love Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his passionate campaigns which bring so many issues into the public eye. The reaction to last year’s programmes which ‘exposed’ the problems around our food system and the wonky veg that is rejected by supermarkets was amazing, and this time, Hugh has turned his attention to the problems of coffee cups, and over-packaging of mail order goods.
He revealed that although most disposable coffee cups are technically recyclable, fewer than 1% actually are, meaning that we send 5,000 cups to landfill every single minute here in the UK.
There were also some astounding examples of over-packaged goods, with Amazon being one of the main culprits, sending things like a lipstick and a nail varnish in a massive box.
The programme focussed on getting the coffee chains to take responsibility for the problem of the cups going to landfill, and to start really actively engaging in trying to find a readily recyclable solution. Hugh also had a meeting with Amazon’s head of sustainability (who in a hugely ironic act, was flown over from the USA for the meeting…) asking them to work on solutions to tackle the cardboard mountain generated by them every day.
This is all great stuff, and it’s brilliant to see these issues being talked about in the mainstream media, and on prime time TV.
But as I was sat watching, I couldn’t help but think that we are really missing the main point here. I feel really conflicted even saying this, as on the one hand I love that these issues are being talked about, and I love that someone is taking action and holding big corporations to account, but there is also another side to this, and it’s one that I feel really strongly about.
The whole reason that we generate so much waste, is that we over-consume. We buy too much stuff. Whether that’s cups of coffee, or electronic gadgets, we all buy too much stuff, with too little thought. We mindlessly consume, and one of the more visible effects of our over-consumption is the waste that it produces. But it’s not really the waste that is the issue. It’s the stuff we buy.
In the 5 R’s of the ‘waste hierarchy’ (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot), recycle is kind of the last resort before composting.
Focussing on recycling the coffee cups, means that we are missing out on three other possible steps before even reaching that point.
The simple act of taking a re-usable cup into the coffee shop with us would solve the whole recyclable coffee cup issue in one easy step.
So why is Hugh not advocating that?
I guess it’s easier for us all to place the blame at someone else’s door, in this case the big coffee chains. It’s their fault for not being pro-active enough in chasing a solution and coming up with a cup that can be easily recycled. It’s not our fault for forgetting our re-usable cups, or not wanting to carry it round all day, or not wanting to risk being questioned by the staff at the coffee shop.
And as for Amazon, yes they are guilty of over-packaging their goods, but it could also be said that we are all guilty of over-consuming. It is so easy now to meet our wants and needs with the click of a button. If we are bored, upset, tired, we can subvert those feelings with the quick fix of a hit consumerism, and for a moment or two feel better and happier, because we have a shiny new something winging it’s way to us. The fact that it is winging it’s way to us in a ridiculously large box is not really the issue. The issue is that we consume too much, most of the time without even really thinking about it.
It’s actually easier to shame big corporations into action, than it is to create behavioural change at an individual and societal level.
And therein lies a huge problem. One that is bigger than 2.5 billion coffee cups going to landfill every year. One that affects all areas of our lives.
Yes, the big corporations need to be held to account. And if I forget my re-usable cup, and really really need a coffee or a cup of tea, I want to know that that cup can be recycled. But what we also need is a level of individual responsibility too. It’s all very well sending an outraged tweet to Starbucks and Costa, angry that their cups aren’t recyclable, and threaten to boycott them until they make change. But actually, a better thing to do would be to simply get hold of a re-usable cup and use that instead. Or even, horror of horrors, not drink so much takeaway coffee – there was a time when it wasn’t considered normal to have to have a coffee on the way into work, and at lunchtime, and on the way home.
And we can all send pictures of our over-packaged goods to Hugh’s War on Waste Facebook page, to encourage Amazon to package our purchases more sensibly, but maybe we should be questioning our purchases on a deeper level than how much cardboard it might come packaged in. Mindlessly buying stuff just because we want it, with no regard for where it has come from, who has made it, what it is made from, and the impact of all of those things on the environment and on people in some far away sweat shop somewhere, and then getting indignant about the size of the box it comes in is possibly approaching the problem back to front.
Yes, we need to recycle. We need big companies to be transparent about their sustainability credentials, and we need to challenge ‘greenwash’, but more importantly than that, we all need to be creating change ourselves. And that doesn’t just mean sending an angry tweet or signing a petition. It means actual physical changes to our behaviours. And this can be much harder than sitting on our sofas feeling outraged. But it doesn’t have to be hard. Making one small change really can make a difference. Using a re-usable cup really does make a difference. If we all did it, if we all took responsibility and made one small change, those 2.5 billion cups wouldn’t be going to landfill.
Making change in our own lives can seem harder than demanding that big companies take responsibly (which we should still absolutely be doing), but it can also be hugely empowering. Taking charge of our own choices, and trying to make the best choices that we can.
That’s how real change happens.