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Disposable coffee cups? Just set your alarm clock

Once upon a time, Coffee houses were places of earnest public discourse, where religious, intellectual, and political ideas were frequently debated over a pot of the pungent black stuff. Good places in which to close a business deal, too, or sketch the opening of a play. Less rowdy than inns and taverns, the coffee houses of 17th and 18th Century Europe were instrumental in spreading the ideas and values we now associate with the Age of Enlightenment – even if they were almost exclusively male domains.

A long way from the Starbucks and Costa Coffees of the 21st Century perhaps. And a long way from the throwaway culture that prevails today and finds its ultimate expression in the plastic coffee cup. It has taken an awfully long time, but the world is finally waking up to the absurdity of producing billions of single-use drinking vessels, just so hopelessly disorganised people can drink coffee ‘on the go’.

Responding to public anxiety about plastic waste (an estimated 500 billion cups are thrown away each year), coffee chains are now incentivising their customers to use reusable cups and investing in compostable alternatives. This upswell of righteousness has spread to the meetings and events industry.

This month the environmental consultancy Eunomia is running the first ever conference coffee cup deposit refund scheme at the Recycling & Waste Management Conference at the NEC, in Birmingham. Under the scheme all F&B retailers at the venue have agreed to offer a discount – generally 25p – to attendees wielding a reusable cup, which they will be offered in exchange for a £1 deposit. When they no longer need it, they can return the cup and reclaim the deposit – or if they prefer, they can keep the cup and use it again and again. Attendees who bring their own reusable cup will also benefit from the discounted drinks.

Bravo, you might say, and surely only a curmudgeon would pick fault with such a plan? Perhaps. But isn’t this just another example of tackling the symptom rather than the problem? In the case of throwaway coffee cups, the problem is obvious: we have somehow normalised the habit of walking around city centres, negotiating public transport, getting into lifts, and, yes, attending meetings, while clutching a hot drink. Somewhere along the line we have convinced ourselves that this behaviour is a function of modern life, that our diaries are so full that sitting down to drink a cup of coffee from a porcelain mug would be an act of career-wrecking abandon!

But in the UK, you only have to turn the clock back 30 years, before international coffee chains were a mainstay on the high-street, to find precisely nobody walking around drinking coffee. If you did, the assumption would be that they were late or had forgotten something and the natural response to their predicament would be a friendly smile of sympathy. Now drinking while walking is the norm.

But bad habits can be broken. Where once it might have been mistaken for miserliness, asking for tap water in restaurants is now not just socially acceptable but positively de rigour. We don’t need to manufacture compostable coffee cups, or devise complicated deposit schemes, but provoke an attitude change that sees drinking takeaway coffee as a sign of bad time-keeping at best and a careless disregard for the environment at worst. And not normal.