This isn’t my first time writing about coffee on this blog, and I doubt it’ll be the last. Coffee is, after all, the most popular drink in the world, with around 2 billion cups consumed each day. Naturally, that makes it pretty important to consider how we’re consuming our beloved drink, and interacting with the overall coffee industry. I’ve already written about slavery in the coffee supply chain and how to source ethical alternatives, but today I want to think about exactly how we’re drinking our coffee too.

Last month the Guardian posted an article by George Monbiot about how we can’t save the world with a better type of disposable coffee cup. Monbiot instead argued that we need to completely overhaul our culture, and he’s right. We can’t save the world by trying slightly greener versions of the status quo:

‘The problem is not just plastic: it is mass disposability… One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.’

I, and most of the ethical influencers I know, agree with this sentiment. We need structural change, corporate overhaul and new environmental policies. We can’t just consume our way out of things.

But this also begs the question: what are we supposed to do in the meantime?

Because let’s be realistic. The coffee industry is not going to turn round tomorrow and suddenly cease production of all disposable coffee cups, insisting you bring your own reusable version. They just aren’t. And, as frustrating as you may find it, positive change is often incremental, and it takes time to get people on board with that change. Just look at the continual controversies around the Starbucks red cups. Never mind that the things are lined with plastic, littering our landfills and clogging up our waterways, people got pissed just because they took the word Christmas off them or because the designs seemed to have a ‘gay agenda’ (there are so many reasons why that second one is abhorrent, but this isn’t the post for that).

As a British person the whole story makes me roll my eyes until my head hurts, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have to meet people where they’re at and usher them in to a new way of being. Just like many of us fell down the rabbit hole of sustainability and over time, step by step, became the activists and consumers we are today, we can’t expect people to change overnight. We have to lead them on the journey too.

This is where Percol Coffee come in.

In the UK alone we drink around 95 million cups of coffee per day, and Percol are doing their best to offer solutions that can meet these caffeine-hungry consumers where they are right now. They’ve been at this work for a long time, and score highly on Ethical Consumer’s coffee rankings. Since their beginnings they have been pioneers in the ethical coffee sphere: they were the first fairtrade ground coffee offered in the UK in 1987 before becoming the first to use single origin and single estate beans in 1990, they were the first to offer organic arabica beans, they have a carbon neutral supply chain, and they founded one of the first independent coffee charities to provide additional direct support to farmers. Their next goal is to go fully plastic free, and to take the industry along with them.

Currently Percol’s instant coffee and iced coffee (the UK’s first organic and fairtrade iced coffee) come in packaging that can be reused or recycled, they are working on plastic free packaging for their ground coffee at the moment, and their capsules are the first Nespresso compatible capsules that are plant based and compostable (check with your local council, but you should be able to put them in your food waste bin).

Yes, this is not as sustainable as taking your jar to a local bulk store and buying coffee beans there, but right now there are a lot of people who were never going to do that anyway, either because that option isn’t available to them, or because they just don’t want to. People are already using Nespresso machines and capsules, but at least changing them to compostable capsules is something compared to nothing at all. My dad has drunk instant coffee my whole life, at the very least him switching to Percol’s metal tin is still better than Nestle’s plastic tubs. For the people who really don’t want to change, who need to be eased in bit by bit, this is an accessible solution that sits in their local supermarket at no inconvenience to them. It’s a start, and everyone needs to start somewhere.

Of course, this on it’s own is not enough. But nobody says it has to be.

Even Percol isn’t saying that. Their aim at reducing waste is a three pronged approach similar to my own (consumer choice, collective action, policy change, in case you hadn’t read that in the last 10 seconds on this blog), that also focuses on coffee outside of the home:

  • POLITICAL CHANGE: petitioning the government to ban non-recyclable disposable cups
  • COMMERCIAL CHANGE: updating legislation to force coffee shops to use recyclable cups
  • CONSUMER CHANGE: continue encouraging people to bring their own cups

These first two points begin the journey of systemic overhaul that Monbiot advocates for, a journey that probably is going to take time. But by enforcing legislation and political policy, corporations are forced to comply. There are already better options out there when it comes to disposable cups, and by forcing major chains to have to utilise these options, we can also force the growth of a better recycling infrastructure within the UK. If the huge corporations are forced to recycle their cups (and provide actual recycling bins for these cups in their premises), then the next logical step is to highlight the lower cost of recycling in the UK rather than shipping abroad, and encourage investment into cleaning up this sector and making it more efficient.

This on it’s own of course is not a long term solution, it’s a medium term one. It doesn’t suggest we can just do a better type of consumption for the rest of our lives consequence free, but it is a better alternative to put in place while we keep pushing for better long term attitudes and approaches. This is an alternative to be implemented whilst we continually promote the use of reusable cups and low waste options, improving accessibility and feasibility for all. Currently there’s no way any government or corporation is going to outright ban disposable coffee cups, and if the other option is to wait until all our systemic changes have shifted enough that this can be the case, we’re still going to create a mighty amount of waste in the meantime.

I say the best solution is to hit the problem from multiple angles: pushing society’s approach forwards and constantly encouraging reducing and reevaluating our attitudes to consumption, whilst still putting better alternatives in place, like cups that are actually recyclable and coffee pods that are compostable, in the meantime. Because together these elements make everything more accessible and appealing to those who don’t care, or can’t afford to, whilst also seeing long term strategies implemented. And that’s the only way we’re realistically going to make change.

Percol has launched a petition asking the UK government to make big brands use eco friendly alternatives, you can sign it here.

Photos by Teegan Egerton

Disclaimer: this wasn’t a sponsored post. I was gifted some coffee from Percol, but it was my choice whether to write about it or not.