We get through 2.5 billion plastic-lined cups every year thanks to our takeaway habit. Our columnist advises you to do your bit and switch back to ceramic.
It was back in the ’90s when the fashion for takeaway coffee – hot, frothy and fresh from Manhattan – really took off in Britain. We’d had coffee for centuries before this, of course: England’s first coffeehouse opened in the 17th century; the celebrated Algerian Coffee Stores in London’s Soho was established in 1887; and from the turn of the 20th century, cityscapes were brightened by Italian espresso bars.
For me, coffee culture went wrong when we started down the US path. It became cool to be seen out and about with a takeaway coffee in a plastic cup – not a restrained European coffee but a supersized American version with a bucketload of milk.
We were conned into thinking that we didn’t have time to make good coffee at home or in the office, or to enjoy it sitting down in a café. Takeaways, we were led to believe, were where it was at. I was once invited into the home of a celebrity who had a state-of-the-art kitchen. To my amazement, she walked in with a plastic cup of coffee that she’d bought from a thoroughly unexceptional local café.
Just look at the legacy of this Americanisation of our coffee consumption: mountains of allegedly ‘disposable’ cups that we can’t actually dispose of. We now get through 2.5 billion such cups (and accompanying plastic lids) each year in the UK. While the paper in them is technically recyclable, it’s bonded to a polyethylene plastic layer to make the cups waterproof – and there are only three centres in the UK that can recycle them. If you routinely buy takeaway coffee (or tea, for that matter), please face the unpalatable fact: your cup is almost certainly contributing to the planet’s increasingly acute excess plastic problem, which begins with choked fish in plastic-ridden seas and ends up with microplastics in the very cells of the food on our plates.
The short-term solution proposed by the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee is a 25p charge on disposable cups, dubbed the ‘latte levy’. It wants all coffee cups to be fully recyclable by 2023.
Starbucks now charges 5p for single-use cups, although it’s debatable whether a few pence on an already pricey beverage will make a dent in the catastrophically unsustainable coffee-on-the-hoof culture that brands such as this have so profitably generated.
So savour a stiff, sobering espresso and grasp a new reality. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with the pleasure of coffee served in a ceramic cup. The world’s grotesque plastic problem won’t be solved with naive ideas of recycling that are as wishy-washy as a watery Americano. We must simply wean ourselves off plastic in all its forms.
Tips to embrace your coffee culture
- Espresso lovers: Be like Italians. Enjoy a quick stand-up coffee at the counter and use a classic stovetop espresso pot at home.
- Americano lovers: A cafetière is your best friend; just make sure the mesh filter and glass beaker are clean (replacements for both are cheap to buy, so you can keep your cafetière going for years).
- Tech-loving coffee geeks: Step away from those coffee pods. Made from plastic and aluminium, they’re a nightmare to recycle.
- Too-busy-to-brew types: A takeaway coffee in a plastic cup isn’t cool, but relishing a well made coffee on a café date with a friend definitely is.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.