Litter, lattes, and looking ahead

I might have said a few rude words this morning when scanning the headlines on the BBC website and I caught sight of this one: “Ministers reject ‘latte levy’ on cups.”

This was an easy win, supported by evidence. But the verdict of “Let’s not be hasty” and “Rely on voluntary discounts instead” shows a complete disregard for the impact that human behaviour has on the environment as well as for evidence-based policy making.

In an ideal world, I would like to see coffee shops, cafes, and fast food outlets charge 25p for a cup and offer a 25p discount if you bring your own. This means that not bringing a reusable cup for a takeaway costs a customer 50p. This is more than a token amount: at 50p each work day, that’s £2.50 each week that could be saved, or a tenner over the course of a month. This type of approach is supported by research: people are loss averse, and losing money has more of an emotional impact than gaining a similar amount.

Yet it feels like the government is waiting for a solution that may never exist, whether it’s better recycling facilities or improved packaging. But it can’t be overlooked that failing to encourage people to use a reusable cup will continue to add to the litter we find in our communities, continue to needlessly use up resources, and continue to feed a negative habit—reliance on single-use packaging—all for the sake of convenience.

As someone with a background in archaeology, I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to put myself in the shoes of people from the past, trying to understand their perspective and their behaviour. Is this what archaeologists of the future will end up doing when they excavate the billions of coffee cups and plastic bottles we have discarded? Will they question why we saw fit to pollute the land and sea with our disposable products? Will they wonder why we didn’t act when we knew there was a problem? I wish them the best of luck in finding answers to these questions because there doesn’t seem to be any clear explanations in the present.

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