New reusable cup initiative is a step in the right direction

Throughout campus in both university owned and Edinburgh University Students’ Association cafés, a new shift in policy has been adopted; switching from rewarding those who bring a re-usable cup, to penalising those who choose disposable. Customers will now pay an additional 25p to purchase a disposable cup instead of reducing the value of drinks served in reusable ones. The plan moves to incentivise students to remember their Keep-Cup or Thermos in a wider bid to reduce waste. Such a policy is widely met with enthusiasm as students recognise the need to reduce our vast consumption of single use plastic. 

It is easy to understand, with paper being such a commonly recycled material, why for so long the humble coffee cup has been misinterpreted as recyclable. Now however, a wider acknowledgement is being accepted that, unfortunately, these cups are not just made of paper. Currently it still requires a polyethylene plastic layer inside to keep the cup waterproof. Though there are some facilities across the UK processing these cups, it is not an economically viable option.

Following recent pressures from environmental campaigns, the government has claimed it is committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. It appears, however, to be somewhat dragging its feet. A call from the Environmental Audit Committee to enforce a 25p levy on all takeaway drinks in the UK, as well as a reward-return scheme on plastic bottles, was rejected back in March this year. The committee also recommended a reform to labelling standards, ensuring they state how the cup should be disposed. Currently this decision is left to individual producers.

As with any campaign, it takes the largest, well-recognised companies and institutions to instigate any shift in behaviour. Just like the big coffee chains are being called upon to reduce their waste, so should we. Being a highly prestigious university, we need to be leading the way in encouraging change. 

Examples of similar alterations in policy have already proved a success in other universities. Winchester University, since implementing the charge last year, claim to have saved 34,000 cups, reusable cups  making up a third of drink sales. Starbucks have also taken similar steps within UK branches by adding an additional 5p to drinks sold in a paper cup – a move followed by a successful three-month trial in London.

 It is pleasing  to see our university also take the right steps towards reducing its waste. Encouraging us to diverge away from buying plastic bottles, the Students’ Association have installed more than thirty new water fountains, with a further two hundred being upgraded or installed in the coming eighteen months. Now, it remains integral that we continue these discussions and campaigns in hope of altering people’s long term consumer habits.

Preventing the ease of access to disposable products will force the habitual change in us. It is human nature to prioritise your thoughts and time by picking the straightforward option in our mundane routinely rituals such as buying a coffee. A seemingly obvious decision investing in reusable mugs for our own domestic use is something we all do. How radical would it really be to suggest including a travel mug into the equation?

Inevitably this is a slow process and there is always more to be done. Hopefully within the next few years we will see the demise of the disposable cup, enforced by government levies and perhaps, in the future, an outright ban. We should welcome these small steps with an air of pragmatic scepticism, as we wait for the government to take decisive action to outlaw single use plastics. While the meagre 25p might not seem like enough to instigate a significant change, we should applaud the positive steps that the Students’ Association is undertaking. But unless this is legislated on a national level, it seems unlikely the UK will achieve its 2042 pledge to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. 

Image: Philocoffee via Flickr

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