Week 10: I will be more prepared to take drinks on-the-go
Updated: May 23, 2020
In this country where we live, you turn on the tap, and guaranteed, clean, drinkable water comes out.
Our son recently asked why and how this happened, and it was a moment of realisation that such an occurrence is a privileged situation. Having a small child in the house, means this happens a lot – an appreciation things that we have taken for granted before, and an instant regret that sometime ago, we forgot to keep noticing.
To look at the World through a child’s eyes, is to remember when things were new, and you were discovering for the first time. As a parent, you have to explain new discoveries, and it is a test each day to re-remember why something is as it is, that you may not have thought about, for a very long time. Re-learning in this way is a good place to start when considering sustainability.
His question was the inspiration for this week’s permanent change because at the time of the question, I was filling up one of his numerous water bottles. We have several for him, because they come everywhere with us, and like many families there is the phenomenon that at any one moment of need, it seems that half of them are missing. They are never lost, but always seem to be in a state of transition – in a bag, in the car, or somewhere else in the house, which is not helpful when you are also perpetually a few minutes behind in life.
Having multiple water bottles means less frustration, and I also realised less panic purchases of bottled water whilst being out. In fact, because of this change alone in his short life, we have dramatically reduced our purchase of bottled water already.
However - somehow this solution to reusable containers and cups didn’t make it to our adult life. I have one water bottle, that is also transitional, and one KeepCup that I think right now is on my desk at work. By purchasing these two items, I believed to be helping, but by really considering the occasions that I take advantage of these reusable items during an average week, it is not enough. Our use of bottled water and disposable cups as adults is still at an unacceptable level given the increasing availability of reusable cups and the as mentioned earlier - the ubiquitous nature of fresh water.
Our little change this week, is to plan our use of reusable containers better, especially when we are on-the-go. This starts with a small investment in a limited but helpful number of water bottles and cups.
Lots of people reading this will know that the statistics on single use plastic and single use coffee cups are many and are well covered. Plastic bottles have become the visual metaphor of floating ocean pollution. They have become as convenient to buy as chocolate bars, and as I am old enough to remember the introduction of bottled water in the mainstream psyche, I also remember feeling the novelty of the introduction and feeling somewhat cool to be drinking from a plastic water bottle. I have to admit that it made me feel more cosmopolitan, more connected to the elite sportspeople and musicians who would crack a bottled water mid-game, or request non-chilled bottles of water on the rider.
Many will see the challenge also this week as a given, and as not radical. I will still have to use each reusable cup around 20 times to make it more efficient than a disposable cup. There is the choice to take a seat in a café, rather than take out, and therefore use a ceramic cup. There is the choice to reduce our intake, and skip the morning tea or coffee. People are already using reusable cups and that the discounts in coffee shops are working. Basically, that we already have lots of alternative options that people are taking. You can choose a café that serves cups that are compostable. These are good choices and progressive choices that we should also consider, but I have a belief that our assumption of our changing behaviour is exaggerated.
To test this, I spent about an hour in a few of our local coffee shops, to personally experience if this assumption is true or if attitudes have already changed and that we have already found common ground amongst the disparate views of the activist and the advertiser.
It included a well-known chain, in a city that has both a large student population and also a large working population. Most of the cafés are busy all day, and I have to also say are staffed by skilled baristas, all impressively wrangling both customers and machinery alike. The test was, out of as close to one hundred customers as I could observe, how many used reusable containers, and how many opted for a non-recyclable cup or a bottle of water.
The result was startling, in that I only saw two reusable coffee cups in the entire time I was observing, despite at least one chain offering a discount for reusable cups, that was displayed on the counter. I don't want to quote exact numbers as this was a non-scientific observation from conveniently seated tables - but let's say that the instance of disposable cups and plastic bottles was over 80% - and that the best reusable option taken was people drinking in with regular ceramic or glass cups. Not only that, but despite the discount, I saw staff in the well-known chain take their break and use a disposable cup to have a coffee, rather than something reusable.
Research suggests that we need about 25% of people to adopt something to make a change to the social norms, which means there is a long way to go here. No one was forced to use a store issued disposable coffee cup, and no-one was ejected for bringing water with them. Similarly however, no-one was drawn or alerted to the offer. It is simply an attitude.
This means to me - that considering that the culture and theatre of coffee houses is also a relatively new phenomenon, I have the feeling that for the mass population, especially if you observe a train station or a town centre in the morning - this is a habit that is hard to break immediately and therefore a good change to make. Observe this and it is also not a generational issue. All ages can be seen clutching a disposable container for their morning fix, or hydrating from the night before. Coffee culture and plastic water bottles are used by everyone, by those who have known little else and by those who relied in their youth more on the Thermos Flask than the Chai Latte.
We sometimes blame the producers, and in return they will defend themselves in suggesting that other options are available. Both sides are right. In essence, to create a norm in our individual lives of bringing a bottle of water along with you to work or sports, or the norm of reusable cups at the coffee chain, I think is a bigger change than perhaps we think it is and it has to be an attitude change as well as the responsibility of producers and providers.
We might want all coffee shops to ban plastic cups immediately, or take bottled water off sale. But sometimes, taking control as an individual means achievable, progressive steps, little changes, and small connections. We are all connected, and we can make little changes that can create attitudinal change, and changes to the norm need critical mass to be accepted and become habits.
This makes our permanent change feel good, as a first step to making sure we think more carefully about the reusability of our containers – to try and bring an extra fraction of a percent to change the norm. I’ve had my first KeepCup for about five years now, and it shows no sign of wearing out or becoming somehow unhygienic (in case you are not familiar, you can find out about KeepCup here: https://uk.keepcup.com/. We have added to the collection with those made from bamboo, whilst we keep learning about which is best. We have our first Ocean Bottle (https://theoceanbottle.com/), which you could consider expensive by comparison to other brands of sports bottles, but will pay back quickly and to me feels the most authentic and passionate right now in actively tackling plastics before they become a problem. Plus, considering bottled water is probably a thousand times more expensive than tap water, any solution will pay back in a few months when it comes to bottled water especially - if you are lucky enough to have a water supply that is ubiquitous and free.
We have enough in the house, in bags and in the car to make sure we are never without reach of hydration or the impulse for a coffee. We have the same situation now with water bottles. Being planned, doesn’t restrict us or clutter us but allows spontaneity and makes us planetwise.
We are all connected. By making this positive change, we feel we have contributed to changing the norm of reaching for a plastic bottle. We are one less name scribbled on a disposable cup. We are all connected, and if we demand more of our plastic producers to think sustainably, we take control of the problem rather than only perceiving ourselves as victims.
If we create a trend of sustainability and reusability, we reward the brands and the independent stores who think progressively, and we reward the bigger organisations that want to really make a difference to our planet. We are all connected, and by making individual reformative choices, we can change attitudes. Imagine that instead of forcing mass producers of plastic to defend themselves with words, we incentivised them to think differently with our behaviour.
Organisations follow demand, and anticipate trends. If we do not change ourselves, there will always be credible data to justify a lack of reformative thinking, or block innovative thinking for short-term economic goals. Through action - there is no data to validate inaction, the data will instead support progression and making more leadership decisions to change. Let's make that the obvious choice.