Mine’s the flamingo cup.
It blows my mind sometimes, that we turn on the tap and are guaranteed that clean, drinkable water comes out.
Our son recently asked why and how this happened, and it was a moment of realisation how privileged this is. Having a small child in the house, means this happens a lot — an appreciation things that we have taken for granted before, and a pang of regret that we’ve forgotten to keep noticing.
His question came a few months back, as I was filling up one of his water bottles. We have several, because they come everywhere with us and like many families there is the phenomenon that at any one moment of need, half of them are missing. Never lost, but always in a state of transition — in a bag, in the car, somewhere else in the house — something that is not helpful when you are already perpetually a few minutes behind in life.
Having multiple water bottles means less frustration. It also means less panic purchases of bottled water whilst being out. As I poured, I also realised that because of this change alone in his short life, we have dramatically reduced our purchase of bottled water.
Reduced, but not stopped altogether.
Our use of bottled water and disposable cups as adults is still at an unacceptable level given the increasing availability of reusable cups and the ubiquitous nature of clean, fresh water.
But somehow this solution to reusable containers and cups has been slower to make it into our adult life. For many years, I had one water bottle, that was also transitional, and one KeepCup that I think right now is on my desk at work, in an office I haven’t been to in earnest for several months.
So by the end of filling up his bottle, I made the resolution that we’re going to take this inspiration and apply it to our whole lives. We have begun to make more use of reusable containers, especially when we are on-the-go, and this is what we have learned as we made this new habit.
This resolution began before the pandemic began, and so some of what we have journaled may seem outdated. But it is perhaps a good moment also to think about how we behave once we are on-the-go more freely, and part of this preparation could be a small investment in a limited but helpful number of water bottles and cups.
Lots of people reading this will know that the statistics on single use plastic and single use coffee cups are many and are well covered. Plastic bottles have become the visual metaphor of floating ocean pollution.
They have become as convenient to buy as chocolate bars, and I have to admit that when bottled water hit the mainstream, it made me feel more cosmopolitan, more connected to the elite sportspeople and musicians who would crack a bottled water mid-game, or request non-chilled bottles of water on a rider.
To also document the usage stats — if you choose to embrace reusable cups and bottle, you will still have to use each reusable cup around 20 times to make it more efficient than a disposable cup.
Therefore there is the choice to take a seat in a café, rather than take out, and therefore use a ceramic cup. There is the choice to reduce our intake, and skip the morning tea or coffee. You can choose a café that serves cups that are compostable. These are good choices and progressive choices that we should also consider, and there are a pot of incentives being introduced to help. Chain coffee stores and independents are starting to offer discounts when you bring your own cup. We have lots of alternative options that people are taking.
But I have a belief that our assumption of our changing behaviour because od these increased options, is exaggerated.
To test this, I spent about an hour in a few of our local coffee shops, to personally experience if this assumption is true.
It included a well-known chain, in a city that has both a large student population and also a large working population. Cafés that were busy all day, staffed by skilled baristas who impressively wrangle both customers and machinery alike. The test was, out of as close to one hundred customers as I could observe, how many used reusable containers, and how many opted for a non-recyclable cup or a bottle of water.
The result was startling, in that I only saw two reusable coffee cups in the entire time I was observing, despite at least one chain offering a discount for reusable cups, that was displayed on the counter. This was a non-scientific observation from conveniently seated tables — but even counting for me not looking or being distracted or forgetful, it is not an experience that suggests that sustainable thinking is taking hold in coffee shop culture.
Not only that but despite the discount, I saw staff take their break and use a disposable cup to have a coffee, rather than something reusable.
Research suggests that we need about 25% of people to adopt something to make a change to the social norms, which means there is a long way to go. No one was forced to use a store issued disposable coffee cup, and no-one was ejected for bringing water with them. Similarly however, no-one was drawn or alerted to the offer. It is simply an attitude.
I have the feeling that for the mass population, and especially those in a hurry at the train station or a town centre in the morning — this is a habit that is hard to break immediately.
We sometimes blame the producers, and in return they will defend themselves in suggesting that other options are available. Both sides are right. To create a norm in our individual lives of bringing a bottle of water along with you to work or sports, or the norm of reusable cups at the coffee chain, I think is a bigger change than perhaps we think it is and it has to be an attitude change as well as the responsibility of producers and providers.
We might want all coffee shops to ban plastic cups immediately, or take bottled water off sale. But sometimes, taking control as an individual means achievable, progressive steps, little changes, and small connections.
Thinking about our consumption on the go, is a first step to making sure we think more carefully about the reusability of our containers — to try and bring an extra fraction of a percent to change the norm. Reusable containers are an investment, but considering bottled water for example is probably a thousand times more expensive than tap water, any solution will pay back in a few months if you make the habit … and of course especially if you are lucky enough to have a water supply that is ubiquitous and free.
We now have enough in the house, in bags and in the car to make sure we are never without reach of hydration or the impulse for a coffee. Being planned, doesn’t restrict us or clutter us but allows spontaneity and makes us planetwise.
We are all connected. By making this positive change, we feel we have contributed to changing the norm of reaching for a plastic bottle. We are one less name scribbled on a disposable cup. We are all connected, and if we demand more of our plastic producers to think sustainably, we take control of the problem rather than only perceiving ourselves as victims.
If we create a trend of sustainability and reusability, we reward the brands and the independent stores who think progressively, and we reward the bigger organisations that want to really make a difference to our planet.
Imagine that instead of forcing mass producers of plastic to defend themselves with words, we incentivised them to think differently with our behaviour.
Organisations follow demand, and anticipate trends. If we do not change ourselves, there will always be credible data to justify a lack of reformative thinking, or block innovative thinking for short-term economic goals. Through action — there is no data to validate inaction, the data will instead support progression and making more leadership decisions to change.
Let’s make that the obvious choice.
For an extended version of this post, please check out the Planetwise Pod!