29 September was the 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 that everyone has the option of drinking tea and coffee from reusable vessels. The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) launched its 'Cupifesto – A Manifesto for No Throwaway Cups' urging drinks retailers and politicians all over the world to stop encouraging a throwaway culture by ensuring that all cups are reusable.
Some organisations targeted particular companies with their demands. Others, like Markets for Change in Australia, gave accolades to 'Cup Conscious Cafes' that offer reusable cups and are happy for their customers to bring their own. Many other people showed 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. Paper cup manufacturing uses more than 1 million tonnes of paper each year, which requires 32 million trees, 100 billion litres of water – that’s 43,000 Olympic swimming pools! – and emits as much greenhouse gases as half a million cars. Hardly any throwaway cups are recycled.
It could be argued that we are blowing things out of proportion. After all, global paper consumption each year is a massive 400 million tonnes, and paper cups use far less than the volumes of packaging or catalogues or junk mail. In Europe, for example, half of all paper use is for packaging. We recognise that this is a real challenge, but cups remain an important issue, partly because they almost all end up in landfill, but also because of what they represent about our society.
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. To do our bit to lessen our environmental impact, we can each carry our own mug, knowing that every cup we don’t throw away helps to ease pressure on forests, save water, cut chemical and greenhouse gas emissions and reduce waste. 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 lifestyle more sustainable.
Paper cup manufacturing uses more than 1 million tonnes of paper each year, which requires 32 million trees, 100 billion litres of water – that’s 43,000 Olympic swimming pools! – and emits as much greenhouse gases as half a million cars.
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. Some of these steps might include charging for throwaway cups, offering rewards to customers who bring their own mug, training staff to offer reusable vessels, creating metropolitan 'libraries' of shared reusable cups, and encouraging innovative designs of foldaway keep-cups.
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 not acceptable that we drink from single-use vessels instead of beautiful pottery, tough plastic, elegant steel. We need a world without throwaway cups.
WWF is a co-signatory of a Global Vision for a sustainable future of paper. This vision is shared by more than 140 environmental and social non-governmental organisations from 28 countries who form a coalition as part of an Environmental Paper Network (EPN). The first pillar of this vision is to reduce global paper consumption.