Wake up and smell the coffee

Back in the day, I studied industrial design. I learned how to do technical drawing, made prototypes of products in a well-equipped workshop and was taught about the history of plastics. I discovered that plastic is made from oil and, in its early days, items created from this new material were desirable luxuries. However, advances in plastic technology and manufacturing mean this workable material has became associated with cheap and low-grade products. Single-use items made of this once-respected fabric are thrown away without any regard.

Take coffee. In fact taking coffee – literally – is a growing world problem. Every day in the UK, up to seven million plastic-lined coffee cups are thrown away. Look around you and you’ll see that those clutching carry-out drinks are not just hipsters accessorising with a barista-prepared brew, but young mums, builders, and school kids slurping down a McCafé®. You may think a cappuccino makes you look cool, but this thrall with carrying a hot drink is nothing new.

Spin the clock back to the 1970s and you’ll find that an essential item in your mum’s, builders’ and school kids’ arsenal was the ubiquitous vacuum flask. Which reminds me of a joke that only your parents will get. A woman walks into a sex shop. The sales assistant asks, “Can I help you?”. “Yes,” says the woman, “How much is that tartan vibrator on the counter?”. “That’s no vibrator – that’s my Thermos!”

So we’ve always liked coffee and we used to cart it with us, supped from a screw-fitted cup. But why did the Thermos go out of fashion? Was it because of the risk of pouring a mug of tepid tea infused with broken glass? There’s no need to play vacuum flask roulette any more; modern insulated containers are extremely robust. Plus, of course, a lot more sustainable than disposables.

I have a plan. I’m not necessarily advocating that we go back to making our own coffee – God forbid! I like a decent roasted bean Americano as much as the next person. But how about we try and make the Isle of Wight disposable beaker free? Would that work? Using the power of public demand, could we encourage coffee shops to fill our own insulated mugs and eschew single-use drinks packaging? We have adapted to taking our own reusable bags when we go shopping so why not our own cups?

It’s a small step, but one which could make a difference. Less waste in municipal bins; less litter. More washing up at home, it’s true – but hey, think of the self-righteousness points we could reward ourselves with. And what do those points make? Ask your grandchildren – if climate change doesn’t get them first.

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 17 November 2017.

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