General ramblings

The War on Waste is great, but aren’t we all missing the point?

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.

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  • Reply Emma T (@ETusty) August 9, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Maybe encouraging consumers to buy less in big packaging means getting people to shop on the high street again…but unfortunately in many towns there’s not a lot of shops less. It would mean less packaging though, and supporting local shops and communities. But removes the convenience.

    I suppose the coffee shops do sell reusable cups and give discounts for using them. And it’s probably commuters who’re most likely to use these given it’s a habitual purchase. It’s those like me who might pop in while shopping – with a small handbag, plus couple of reusable bags, and my own water bottle – for a spontaneous drink. There’s no way I’d take out an additional drinking mug (I rarely drink hot drinks unless I treat myself in a coffee shop and it’s usually to drink in anyway) as it’s an additional item to carry while shopping.

  • Reply Toby August 2, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    Whilst I agree with the suggestion, there is an even better option. Rather than getting a coffee to take away – in a cardboard cup or your own – how about taking five or maybe even ten minutes to sit down and drink it right there in the coffee shop? Not only does it come in a readily reusable ceramic cup, but it gives you a few minutes to clear your head, watch the world go by, maybe even talk to a stranger.

    • Reply Jen August 3, 2016 at 12:24 pm


  • Reply Tayyiba August 1, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    I come from a third world country I know how dirty it is down the stream and the tragedy is that first world has no idea what their consumerism is doing it to others and even themselves. At personal level I’m at war within myself to curb my consumer behaviour. It’s a very good post but since it’s not to promote more buying it will be taken with a pinch of salt.

    • Reply Jen August 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks for your comment Tayyiba-I can only imagine the destruction our rampant consumerism causes in poorer countries ????

  • Reply Mary August 1, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Hi Jen, I’m reading this from outside the UK (Australia)… I feel you guys are a few steps ahead of us in having a show called War on Waste (sounds great!) but agree the priority needs to be on reducing our consumption in the first place. Thanks for what you do – love reading your blog 🙂

    • Reply Jen August 1, 2016 at 9:21 pm

      Thanks so much Mary! You have some wonderful zero waste advocates in Australia – do you know of Lindsay at Treading my own path, or Erin at The Rogue Ginger?

  • Reply Melissa July 30, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    If holding people to relatively simple solutions is difficult I fear having the conversation about oveconsumption will be near impossible. It doesn’t mean it should be talked about but there is no going back really. So rather than tackle consuming itself, because let’s face it it is a necessary evil. But smart consumption is at least doable. So I like that these issues are being talked about because then that notion of overconsumption can make it’s way into the conversation too.

    • Reply Jen July 31, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Definitely Melissa! I’m not advocating we all turn our backs on consumption and live off grid, quite the opposite. I want to show people that it is possible to live a ‘normal’ life that is also sustainable for the planet. We all need to consume, the key is conscious, deliberate thought out consumption where we take responsibility for the choices we make and the things we buy 🙂

  • Reply Amelia Byrne July 30, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Could the coffee shops offer incentives to those who bring their own cup- bonus loyalty points/a price reduction? That way they influence individuals?

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 10:12 am

      I think some of them Amelia – there are discount schemes in some chains and independent shops for bringing your own cup

  • Reply Chris July 30, 2016 at 9:22 am

    I agree with everything said but the trouble is that we are encouraged to spend , if we did not spend the economy would crumble as it is a ponsey scheme the same as pyramid selling-scheme. I remember the President telling Americans to keep shopping after 9/11

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Yes, agreed Chris. We need our whole economic system to change, and that feels pretty daunting! I tend to get overwhelmed when I start thinking about the big picture, and then it all feels very bleak and helpless. To counter-act that I try to focus on the things that I can do, no matter how small.

  • Reply Portia Lawrie July 30, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Great post Jen!

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 10:10 am

      Thanks so much Portia!

  • Reply flyingsolo7 July 30, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Totally agree, I have coffee at home & so don’t use these shops but if I did I would happily take a cup like I always take my bags for life ( and have done long before the charge was introduced) I hate waste, I will recycle , re use, give away anything before land filling it, I also agree with we buy too much and I really think about any purchase now & only buy what I feel is essential.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:35 am

      That’s great to hear! What was the thing that got you started on this way of thinking and living?

  • Reply Victoria July 30, 2016 at 6:13 am

    Yes, yes, yes!

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Victoria!

  • Reply theipswichfiles July 30, 2016 at 5:12 am

    It is much harder to change the behaviour of individuals than it is to influence the practices of companies. Whilst those, like me, who read blogs like this are much further down the “waste free” road than others, what Hugh is doing exposes the green wash that companies like Starbucks et al use. I would hope that those watching the programme and then complaining to coffers shops will be a little less inclined to blindly accept the environmental claims made by companies and begin to look a little more carefully at what they are throwing away. It is a small step but every journey begins with the first step. It might be an idea to suggest programme ideas to Hugh, I was thinking about seeing how far the new series goes and suggesting he tackle the over use of plastic packaging next.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:37 am

      You are so right. It’s all about baby steps and making a start. I really hope that programmes like this do more than provoke a momentary outrage, and really start at least few people joining the dots and creating change 🙂

  • Reply timikonya July 29, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Completely agree, very well written post. Recycling is not the solution, we need to change our approach to consuming. Thanks for this ????

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:37 am

      Thank you so much.

  • Reply sjl July 29, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    Thank you for this. I too wondered why Hugh didn’t go further but then realised after reading some comments on his fb page that many people are not prepared to take any responsibility whatsoever. As far as a good proportion are concerned the fact that they thought their cup was recyclable was enough for them to pass all blame to the corporates. No one questioned what impact recycling has in itself eg it’s not the total answer.
    I almost screamed at the tv when they said Amazon had flown that women over from the US – the irony indeed!
    There has to be a shift of concienceness but that won’t happen overnight and I can only imagine that Hugh realises he has to gradually lead otherwise people will just switch off.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Yes! It’s such huge progress to even see these things being discussed in the mainstream media.

  • Reply Chris Montana July 29, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    A very interesting article, albeit idealistic. I been living a sustainable life and advocating a ‘One Planet’ lifestyle for over 25 years, long before recycling was made easy. One thing I have learned in that time is that many people do not care about the same things as myself. I still have to take drinks cans and paper out of the bins at work, bringing them home to put in my recycling bin. If you think that the majority of folk are somehow going to change their shopping habits and get a conscience, I believe you will be disappointed. This system that is in place relies on consuming. People want new TVs, cars and phones etc. regardless of whether they need to upgrade. Unfortunately, whilst ever new is available, people will buy it. Along with coffee, there is the ridiculous trend of bottled water, and let us not forget the plastic tray that holds everything from pasties to croissants, and crackers to veg. That would outnumber the coffee cup by far, I would think. Unless it is legislated to change, I’m afraid it won’t. And even then, the party that legislates it can be voted out. Unfortunately, it’s the US style capitalist model that most countries aspire to, which doesn’t seem to favour the planet’s longevity.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:43 am

      I hear what you are saying Chris, but it makes me feel really depressed 🙁
      You make it sound like the whole situation is hopeless. I have low moments when I despair that we can turn this around and start making the right decisions (at an individual and societal level), and I genuinely worry for the future that my kids will face. It may be naive to expect widespread behavioural change, and yes, lots of change needs to happen at a governmental level, all of which I can do nothing about. But I can change me. And the things that I do. And do everything I can to inspire others to change.
      How do you deal with it?

      • Reply Tasha July 30, 2016 at 9:11 pm

        I agree that it can seem totally overwhelming, but I think the best we can do is to keep doing what we can, and spreading the word. Lately I’ve been trying to think about small ways I can share the steps I take toward having a more handmade/deeply rooted/less wasteful life. My natural tendency is to not make a big fuss about bringing my own jar to the store for honey or the fact that I made what I’m wearing, in fact if anything I tend to keep those things under wraps because they might seem “weird” to others. But actually I think that when people see you doing something different, and the fact that it’s obviously working for you, it can be much more powerful than telling them what to do … I don’t have it all figured out by any means, but I do think it helps when people can see that there’s an alternative.

        • Reply Jen July 31, 2016 at 11:59 am

          I’m a bit the same Tasha – I find it relatively easy to talk about/share my choices in a relatively anonymous way online, but find it much much harder to have the same conversations with ‘real-life’ friends, and even family.

    • Reply kevin July 30, 2016 at 10:37 am

      I unfortunately have the same depressing experience, I won’t stop trying but it seems unless something is directly negatively impacting a person they won’t change, everyone is selfish to different degrees which is why some people do more than others to try to change as they can see the impact their actions have on others but most people are more concerned with their world directly in front of them that only impacts them. The plastic bag charge is an example of this, everyone knows these are bad but until it affected them by being charged more money the majority didn’t change. Money is the key point and I think really is the root of a lot of evil but our society needs this to continue, unfortunately we are in a broken model that is not helping but is too difficult to unpick to create something better, only when things are so bad will change be forced. Sorry for the rant but I think programmes like Hughs are great but will blow over after a couple of weeks, such as starbucks incentive of discount when you bring your own cup after a while it will be business as usual again.

      • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm

        How do we encourage change Kevin? It can all be so very overwhelming, and when I allow myself to really stop and think about it, I start to panic. What can we do?

  • Reply Jennie July 29, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I have to say that I was saying the same thing to the tv whilst watching. We have all (well the vast majority of us anyway) made a smooth transition into the world of taking our own shopping bags with us. Surely it is not too much of a stretch for those people who regularly drink coffee to take a cup with them? I think that this should become the new normal and perhaps the coffee shops should charge a fee for a disposable cup as per the bag charge to focus all of our minds.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:44 am

      Someone has just suggested that on Facebook too Jennie!
      I’m not sure though how much impact a 5p charge (for example) would have? Would it just be absorbed into the perceived cost by the consumer? Or would they really notice? It would certainly make for an interesting trial.

  • Reply Helen July 29, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    I totally agree with your sentiment, Jen. I watched about half the programme – it was shocking to see that the ‘recyclable’ cups are in fact not recyclable. However, do we even need to drink that much coffee.

    I guess part of the underlying problem is our fast-paced lives which leave us tired, if not exhausted, and reliant on caffeine to keep us going. Then we have huge areas of land which could be used for growing food taken up with cash crops for the privileged few. This is then flown around the world, making the waste just one of many aggravations.

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:45 am

      It’s a crazy crazy world Helen

  • Reply The Snail of Happiness July 29, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    spot on – my tweet advocating using your own cup has had lots of likes and retweets, but not as many as the one I’m tagged in that complains that the financial incentive given by Starbucks for cup reuse as been reduced. Sigh…

    • Reply Jen July 30, 2016 at 8:45 am

      Keep up the good work though Jan!

    • Reply Vee Phillips August 1, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      I was really cross to find that the incentive for bringing a reusable cup had been reduced, even before the programme aired, when the Starbucks execs made such a big thing of it during their filmed interview with Hugh. That seems unbelievably cynical: they’ll get all the kudos of offering it without having to honour it, especially if some people didn’t pick up on the reduction. Calling it a “trial” is appalling as that certainly wasn’t mentioned in the interview. I rarely use Starbucks anyway, but that made me determined to avoid them.

      • Reply Jen August 1, 2016 at 9:19 pm

        They ended up coming out of it really badly – if hey we’re going to call it a trial and then scrap it, they would have been much smarter to wait until the programme had aired before doing so!

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