In Aotearoa We Choose To Reuse.

By Laura Cope: UYO Cafe Guide

In my mind, single use cups hold more than coffee. They are emblematic and symptomatic of our throwaway culture. An inherited culture which emerged in the western world soon after the upheavals of WWII. One that is fed by marketing and media. One that, in this western world, recklessly celebrates living in a time of plenty, abundance - a hedonistic playground where we, up until very recently, believe that all the earth's resources are ours to fritter. 

A cultural shift is what the world needs now (as well as love, sweet love, which is indeed the only thing that there's just too little of). A way to enable this shift is to enage the very top of the waste hierarchy - to refuse, reuse, repurpose and reduce. We need to make this the new normal. New Zealand is in a unique position, with its accommodating climate, geographical isolation and small population. We can function and thrive with refuse, reuse, repurpose and reduce. As far as hospitality is concerned, with well-planned implimentation of truly circular systems and a fair amount of common sense, (all within our reach) we need never get our hands dirty with recycle. 

The ban in New Zealand of plastic bags, which importantly included ‘eco’ bioplastics also, has set a societal precedent for reuse. We survived it. We whined a little, but we adjusted. And our eyes have been opened wider because of it. Conversations about single use waste, and plastic waste, are all around us. Time to step up and forward.

Addressing single use coffee cups, with the eventual goal of removing them from our hospitality industry completely, is a more personal and sensitive dialogue than plastic bags. Shopping falls under the heading of a ‘chore’ – remembering to bring our own bags simply extended the parameters of the task. Coffee, however, is a different arena entirely. 

Coffee is complicated. It is a luxury item, a reward, an activity that punctuates the day. It is a status symbol, a lifestyle accessory, an addiction. Our right to coffee, and our belief in our right to have coffee on the run, is inextricably bound up by the marketing and media that we have consumed since we could read a billboard or watch a screen. We have been fed this: coffee on the run means we are busy, and being busy means we are successful and being successful means we are desirable and being desirable means we are better than just being…ourselves. Talking about removing the throwaway coffee cup challenges all of this nonsense: the dangerous nonsense which urges us to pay more attention to our ego than the future of all life on earth; the nonsense that flatters and utilises our self-importance to perpetuate a system of profit before all else. 

‘I am an individual. I am unique and precious. I have rights, and I can have whatever I want, if I work hard to get it and I pay for it.’ Take out coffee in single use cups is attached to this mentality. The Use Your Own movement says ‘stop thinking of yourself – this is not about you.’ Our spoilt, throwaway, convenience culture has to change - this is indisputable. And the single use coffee cup is a good starting point to address these far larger social issues. The single use coffee cup is a kind of therapy puppet. We can investigate our dependencies and entitlements using the coffee cup. This café guide aims to encourage us to examine ourselves, via our relationship with single-use: our relationship with status, branding and stuff; our self-defeating demands for personal convenience over all other considerations; the right of the individual over the good of all. 

There are two noted and repeating side effects of removing single use coffee cups from a café or eatery. The first is an increase in sales of reusable cups (we have been, of course, conditioned to buy our way to solutions), which I feel is a forward step, in that it indicates an acceptance of personal stewardship - the antithesis of 'I have an intrinsic right'. The second is that customers make time to stay. Making time to stay, for me, is the hope-fuelling, the heart-warming, the optimism-blooming bi-product of exorcising throwaway cups. 

Churches, pubs, maraes, village halls. They are struggling to hold us together. They can often separate us even, into different denominations and social demographics. But cafes are perfectly positioned to connect us. They are accessible. They require only a minimal entrance fee – the price of a flat white – and do not exclude us because of where we come from, what language we speak, how much money we have, our religion, our race, our creed. We can be united in coffee and cake. It sounds flippant. But when we make time to stay, inadvertently perhaps, we are vulnerable to the visceral human ties that come from eating in a pack – sharing meals in one space. We have the opportunity to unconsciously connect. The more we repeat this action – sitting and feeding and drinking, replenishing together, the more we become community. We begin to recognise faces. Strangers become familiar. We are community. Trust builds. And so our resilience to face the future, which may well be an uncomfortable one, can be strengthened. 

Creating a cultural norm, a unified truth that in Aotearoa we choose to reuse, can never harm us. Can never damage our children. Can never threaten our economy. Can never pollute our natural capital – our land, water, air. It can only encourage self -sufficiency, integrity, ingenuity; respect for each other and papatÅ«anuku.

So, for me, coffee cups aren’t the issue. They are emblematic and symptomatic of a national sickness. They can also be the beginning of a cure. The gateway to a healthier approach to our days. Letting them go gives us permission to slow down; to be real; to connect with each other; to love ourselves for our deeds and thoughts, not for the branding on the cup we hold in our hand while we rush through our one life. 

In Aotearoa we choose to reuse. A small sentence. A small act. Infinite potential.