There’s Something in Coffee Cups: Focusing on Culture to Improve Sustainability Policy

I recently attended an interesting guest lecture that led me to re-think how we prioritise sustainability policies. The person speaking was a public servant in the field of waste management. He shared his work experience and, with that, his views on the policy process. He spoke very frankly to an audience that was mostly students, and his eloquence attracted our interest.

At one point, the discourse around single-use coffee cups came up. The guest lecturer was of the opinion that there are more pressing or more impactful challenges in the ACT, which have to do with energy and transport, than a vessel that holds caffeine. He suggested that there are fundamental policy areas and sustainable infrastructure projects that have more scope for meaningful change. We must approach the design and development of our cities in an entirely different way if we want to engage in a more sustainable way of life. I had not thought about the real merit of focusing on this compared to smaller projects – like those targeting coffee cup usage – and I found his argument to prioritise other sustainability challenges convincing.

That was until I was cycling through Civic the other day. Despite being somewhat rushed because I was running late, I couldn’t help but notice the people on the street who were chatting, taking breaks or on the move. In their hand: take-away coffee cups. There is something about the feeling of holding a coffee cup while on your way to the next important thing that represents a busy and interesting lifestyle.

Is this an image that we can happily sustain? I could not help but question whether tackling the use of disposable cups is a priority when we use them are so regularly and so visibly. Yes, politics is about making choices that regularly involves balancing conflicting values. Pollution affects our environment in different ways, and there is a range of policy options that can tackle this problem. But, when has the emphasis on individual responsibility has gone too far?

It can be difficult to decide, in measurable terms, which approach avenue would deliver greater results. A campaign to discourage the use of disposable coffee cups might not be as impactful as a policy that emphasises individual usage of renewables – this, of course, being the argument put forward by the public servant at the guest lecture. However, when it comes to instilling patterns in sociocultural practices, discouraging the use of coffee cups might be more impactful in the long term. It engages with sustainability in a different way than a renewable energy investment program would. By encouraging people to contextualise our habits in terms of their environmental impact, we can change the way we think about sustainability in our everyday lives.

Australia is well known for its coffee culture, and the take-away coffee represents an important practice in our daily lives. It is a symbol for the intersection between the social and the professional, and how this informs our perspectives. Thus, promoting education to make this practice more sustainable is paramount. It can contribute to thinking differently about our actions and our impact on the environment. Sustainability ultimately comes down to the relationship that we have with our surroundings and coffee cups can make us more conscious of this.

For instance, legislation seeking to reduce plastic bag usage has spread across countries in the European Union and has incited people to think about reusing bags. Policy action strengthened the effect of community initiatives that were already in existence. In the Netherlands, small and large businesses have responded to the legislation creatively by meeting consumer needs in ways that are less detrimental to the environment. Shortly before the implementation date of the Dutch legislation, a local bakery handed out reusable bags that customers can fold into a small pouch with the image of a bread bun. For the bakery, the legislation created an opportunity to influence the connection with its patrons.

These examples certainly make a good case for the government to investigate policy options concerning the use of disposable coffee cups. Like plastic bags, people purchasing disposable cups could, for example, incur a small extra charge to encourage investment in their own reusable coffee cups.

One might say that it is a waste of time or distracting to focus on take-away coffee cups as a policy issue. But that does depend on what we consider a problem to be and on how success is measured. We should not underestimate the power of promoting cultural shifts in our everyday practices, and their importance as a springboard for encouraging wider shifts in attitudes toward sustainability.