In my ‘day job’ I work for the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a coalition of more than 140 civil society organisations that share a vision for a future where all paper is produced, used and disposed of ethically and sustainably. Given that paper accounts for more than 40% of world industrial forestry, it’s a massive issue. For me, there’s a paradox as a writer – I want loads of paper to come rolling off the presses with my words on it, but I also want the paper industry to stop its damaging practices. The resolution of this paradox for me is that some kinds of paper have high utility (like books!) and some have very low utility indeed, and low utility products need to go! Throwaway cups are a great example of the lowest utility – after just a few sips they’re in the bin and yet there are many perfectly reusable and much nicer alternatives.
Today is an international day of action on throwaway cups, with environmental campaigners out on the streets of Hobart in Australia, Chengdu in China, Hamburg and Berlin in Germany, Helsinki in Finland and Seattle and New York in the USA, seeking to ensure everyone has the option of drinking tea and coffee from reusable vessels. The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) has launched the ‘Cupifesto – A Manifesto for No Throwaway Cups’ urging drinks retailers and politicians all over the world to stop encouraging a throwaway culture, by ensuring all cups are reusable.
Some organisations, such as Robin Wood and Stand in North America, are targeting particular companies (BackWerk and Starbucks) with their demands. Others, like Markets for Change in Australia, are giving accolades to ‘Cup Conscious Cafes’ that offer reusable cups and are happy for their customers to bring their own. Many other people are showing solidarity by sharing selfies with nice reusable mugs and talking about the ‘cupifesto’ on social media.
What’s all the fuss about? Throwaway cups have a serious environmental impact, causing waste, deforestation and pollution. The problem is one of scale: at least 58 billion throwaway cups are used each year globally, the manufacture of which uses more than a million tonnes of paper each year. Their production requires 32 million trees, 100 billion litres of water (that’s 43 thousand Olympic swimming pools) and emits as much greenhouse gases as half a million cars. Hardly any throwaway cups are recycled.
Throwaway cups, whether made of paper, Styrofoam or plastic, are an icon of wasteful resource use, and of the unthinking acceptance of ever-increasing volumes of disposable commodities. By highlighting the environmental impact of throwaway cups and asking people to imagine a world where all cups are reusable, we hope to stimulate the sense of value in the materials that we use in our day to day lives. We hope that everyone who reads the Cupifesto will sit down and enjoy a drink in a reusable cup and reflect on other ways that they can make their own footprint a bit smaller.
This can’t be just about personal action. Politicians and business leaders need to take responsible steps towards sustainable consumption of paper and other natural resources. We all need to move to the kind of society in which it is unacceptable to manufacture disposable objects that have perfectly good reusable alternatives. It is outrageous that we drink from single-use vessels instead of beautiful pottery, tough plastic or elegant steel. We need a world without throwaway cups.