Smell the coffee: How the reusable cup became a battleground
The row that erupted when Irish Rail refused to fill reusable cups — except their own — underlined their status as a symbol of sustainability. But just how effective are they, asks Julia Molony
Oh dear, Irish Rail. Didn’t you learn anything at all from Boris Johnson’s coffee-break blunder earlier this year?
No excuse for it really. Especially given that the moment a PR aide snatched away a hot beverage from the now-PM’s meaty mitts on camera quickly went viral in October. “No disposable cups!” she hissed, as his team flapped to find a reusable cup to furnish him with instead. Even Boris, it seems, can’t be caught dead with the little plastic cup-and-lid ensemble that has lately become an emblem of shame.
“No disposable cups” has risen to become the eco-orthodoxy of our times.
In coffee shops all over the land, earth-conscious consumers hand over their reusable cups to their baristas to fill, and walk away savouring the sweet taste of a clear conscience as they sip on their soy latte. There’s even a Dublin cafe which won’t sell you a takeaway coffee on Mondays unless you’ve a reusable cup with you.
But that’s not the case for consumers who buy their morning brew on the train. Irish Rail became a panto villain this week when it announced that it couldn’t facilitate keep cups on its services. The reason, spokeswoman Jane Cregan said, was to do with health and safety.
“Trialling different size cups under the spout could lead to the catering attendant being burned” she advised. Unless, that is, customers are willing to invest in Irish Rail’s own branded Enterprise reusable cups — meaning they are not allowed to bring whatever brand they have at home.
It’s just an excuse, believes Sorcha Kavanagh of Conscious Cup, an environmental charity which campaigns for waste reduction. She points out that rail companies in other countries have found solutions to this exact problem, and believes that health and safety is being used as a pretext because Irish Rail don’t want to make the necessary investment of time and equipment to facilitate customers who want to bring their own cups.
“It’s all about creating the infrastructure to do it,” she says. “In the UK there are a few rail companies that accept and promote the use of reusable cups.
“There are solutions to every problem. People want to do the right thing, they want to carry their own cup. I think these things have to be overcome, and if other countries can do it why can’t Ireland?
“Listening to Irish Rail on the radio this morning, they did say that they were working on finding a solution, that they were looking to see what they could do. And I would certainly hope that they were going to make an investment into creating change around it. If the spout is the problem, that can be sorted.”
But what about the bigger picture? In recent years, plastic has become public enemy number one. So many of the environmental threats we face today seem insurmountable to the average consumer. It’s easy to feel powerless. What can any one of us, struggling through our own lives, do to make a real difference in the face of growing carbon emissions and melting ice caps, inexorable soil erosion and insect Armageddon, except bury our heads under the duvet and await the apocalypse in comfort?
But plastic seems to be a more manageable problem. Buying a reusable cup, carrying around a fork in your handbag so you don’t need a disposable one, these feel like changes we can easily make. Brandishing your keep cup with pride has become a badge of honour, material and visual evidence that you, the owner, is doing their bit to invest in the planet our children will inherit.
Whether they make a real difference is up for debate. Last year Caroline Woods, a researcher in food security at the University of Sheffield, wrote that because it requires more emissions to produce a reusable cup, it would need to be used between 20 and 100 times before any benefit to the environment was accrued, and that many people would throw them away before that had happened. “The unavoidable truth is that it simply isn’t convenient for people on the run to remember their cup, carry it around and wash it out between uses,” she wrote in an article published on The Conversation.
By focussing on the cup, we may be putting too much emphasis on the wrong area, she argues. “It’s estimated that packaging makes up less than 5pc of the total carbon footprint of a takeaway latte in a disposable cup (consider: the oil used in fertiliser on the plantation, the jet fuel used to transport the coffee beans, the energy used to heat the coffee, and so on)” she explains.
Her advice is to cut down on takeaway coffees altogether and have a sit-down cuppa in a china cup instead.
But Mindy O’Brien, from the Irish environmental charity Voice, disagrees. She argues that making sustainability achievable for the average person is a vital first step. “I think we need to bring people with us and a keep cup is a first step.”
It’s also a powerful symbol because it “captures the imagination. I always say, buy the product not the packaging..”
Sorcha Kavanagh agrees. “Using a different coffee cup, well, that’s one small change that seems easy to make,” she says.
While Caroline Woods says that disposable coffee cups only make up a tiny percentage of public waste, Kavanagh counters that “the argument about how much waste is produced by a coffee cup that really only comes into play at the end of life of the cup, it doesn’t actually consider all the energy and resources used — transport, every single aspect that goes into manufacturing it, prior to it landing in someone’s hands.
“So it’s not really fair for that figure to be used because it doesn’t consider all the variables that go into producing anything that is single use,” she explains.
“And yes, while the cup is a small thing to do, for an awful lot of people it is actually can be the start of their journey into sustainability and to other things that they can do .
“We need policy change, we need industry change ad we need consumer change so all of those three have to work together.”