News emerged recently that Government Agencies will be banned from buying single-use plastics in a move that will be generally be received as a positive step, and a nice bit of political kudos to boot. It's environmentally progressive, it’s hard to argue with from an ethical perspective and it's definitely needed given Ireland's recent ranking as the “worst performing EU country for action on climate change” for the second consecutive year.
At face value, I think it is a good idea and no doubt includes the use of single-use paper coffee cups which has become the main focus of conversation in most media circles in the last few years. I can't however, shake the feeling that there's something brewing that could be potentially devastating for those who ply their trade in the Irish coffee industry.
It seems clear to me that the Government are slowly building towards an outright ban on take away coffee cups. Initiatives like this have been dripping slowly but steadily into the public and private sectors over the last year and they're widely heralded and rarely criticised. Although I run a business that is largely dependent on take away coffee business, I actually think it’s a great idea, once it’s done wisely.
I've spoken to many customers, suppliers and contemporaries in the industry in recent months and there's a growing consensus that we're being lined up as a political cannon ball. At a time when increasing competition, growing overheads and hikes in VAT/Employers PRSI/minimum wage have already called time on a number of establishments across the country, an immediate outright ban could be a devastating blow to an industry that isn't set up to deal with it.
The irony of all this is that our industry is one that has been beating the drum of sustainability many years before the tech giants, banks and law firms decided to splice it into their Corporate Social Responsibility statements. Many coffee shops across the country are composting their waste, using local suppliers and finding innovative ways to use food waste products in creative ways (cauliflower stalk kimchi is a personal favourite). We want to be sustainable when it comes to coffee cups and drive this programme, but the infrastructure just isn't there.
It’s almost impossible to find a paper cup that is environmentally sound but it is very easy to source one that will appear to be. The same can be said for all of the packaging we source, all of which come in forms that are recyclable, biodegradable, compostable and have no end of certification to prove it. When it comes to using them in real life scenarios however there's no real way to ensure they're disposed of in a sustainable way.
Our cups at 3fe are 100% Recyclable and have been certified so. They have a nice little logo on the side and we when we launched them late last year we felt we had delivered something that was not just sustainable, but user friendly too. When customers leave one of our shops it’s quite unlikely that they'll pass a compost bin but most of them will end up near a recycling bin. Unfortunately, things didn't quite turn out that way.
The cups are recyclable, it’s just there aren't any facilities in Ireland that are willing to recycle them. The problem is that when they get to a recycling facility they’re mixed in with all the other non-recyclable cups and it’s it's too onerous on the sorters to separate one from the other. It’s too hard to differentiate them so they just bin them all.
This follows with any other product that you put in your recycling or compost bins. If there is any doubt on whether it fits the criteria, they er on the side of caution and bin it. To stop the conveyor belt and look for tiny little logos would be next to impossible (even if they do see a logo they have to make a judgement call on whether it can be trusted) so they just don't take risk of contaminating the whole batch, and you really can't blame them for doing so.
We use many types of packaging all across our business and its become increasingly depressing to realise that appearing to be sustainable is one thing but fulfilling that promise is quite another.
Although coffee cups are a cause of concern to us all in the industry it’s also important to remember that they represent a tiny fraction of the waste generated by the country. I have no figures to hand for Ireland but in the UK a very excellent youtube video by my friend James Hoffmann explained that they amount to 0.1% of waste on his side of the water. I'd suspect that they generate 90% of the headlines if not more.
Ultimately the most sustainable way to enjoy a take away coffee is to buy a reusable cup and bring it with you to your local coffee shop. There's a lot coffee shops can do to support it (like offering a discount and stocking the reusable cups for purchase) but it has to be customer driven.
Right now I see a war chest being slowly built against the single use coffee cup and I am 100% on board, but I want to see the infrastructure in place first so we don't do irreparable damage to businesses and jobs. Let's also give our suppliers and manufacturers enough time and support to ensure they have the materials and equipment necessary to rollout a suitable alternative.
Many coffee businesses order cups in batches of hundreds of thousands to keep unit costs down and if a rash decision is made all of these cups will end up in landfill having never been used. Companies like Cup Print in Co. Clare have also invested heavily in state of the art equipment to manufacture recyclable cups. A knee jerk reaction could have devastating effects on them and their staff when they are the ones pushing hardest for a sustainable solution.
So let’s ban single use paper cups but let’s also install recycling bins in public spaces and ensure every cup on the island is recyclable so there's no need to sort them. Lets force supermarkets to let you leave the packaging behind. Let’s take the VAT off reusable containers and encourage the use of silos and open crates at our markets and really drive a culture behind it.
I am very much advocating for an outright ban on single use cups and packaging, but I’d like to see it put in place for January 2021 with clear guidelines, criteria and infrastructure to get us there. Lets absolutely do this, but let's do it for viable, sustainable reasons and not just political ones.