Disposable coffee cups need more than disposable thinking

Andy Green reflects on a real life experiment and what it means for a possible latte levy

Andy Green is Director of Grow Social Capital

I conducted a real-world social experiment at a recent conference in Cardiff. It provided a surprising insight into human behaviour.

With proposals announced to tax disposable coffee cups because of their environmental damage my investigation proved highly prescient. Yet, what might seem an instant good thing could actually be counterproductive.

If you had to profile the 150 or so public sector communications professionals attending the Comms Cymru conference at the Principality Stadium you would probably label them ‘environmentally-aware liberals’. If you were to ask them: “Do you care for the environment, and act responsibly?” you would have likely been told a resounding ‘Yes’.

Being a great fan of ‘Freakonomics’, where you gain profound insights from data generated by seemingly inconsequential behaviours, the sight greeting delegates on arrival of two choices of coffee drinking receptacles – a disposable or ceramic cup – sparked my curiosity. I got friendly with the catering staff and simply asked them, “Could you do me a big favour and count how many people choose disposable or the ceramic cup?”

Reality made the task easy: only one other delegate, other than me, chose ceramic. Everyone else opted for disposable.

A classic example of behaviours not complying with their professed self-image.

Lessons of nudge theory and the ‘plastic bag tax’ experience seemingly provide a convincing case for change with a new ‘Latte Levy likely to offer quick wins. Yet, is this masking the real underlying cause of much of our environmental damage – we all seek the ‘easy’ option in our choices and behaviours?

What prevails is not necessarily the best but the easiest. The ‘Latte Levy’ provides a transactional response – ‘it will cost me 25p to use a disposable cup – therefore, I will comply’. It is not requiring a more intrinsic response of ‘I need to do the ‘right’ thing’ more often’.

If we’re serious about creating a healthier, more sustainable Wales we cannot rely alone on nudge tactics to guide our behaviour.

We need instead, to be ‘Bigger Citizens’ realising that we have responsibilities, we need to be more self-reliant, and that every act we do is ‘political’. Whether it is choosing to spend £5 at the big supermarket rather than the local shop, to picking up litter where you can, to even choosing not to smile at someone in your neighbourhood whose face you recognise but don’t know their name.

Each of us need to be consciously aware that we are living, breathing social capital engines and everything we do affects the society we live in. We need to manage our Social Capital – which I define as ‘how we help each other, to help each other’.

We live in an era of growing ‘Unsociable Capital’ where changes in technology, social and economic trends may make life more comfortable and convenient. Yet there is usually a hidden cost damaging wider social relationships and the common good.

Responding to quick, instant gratification can lead to poorer choices. There is much inspiration to be gained from ‘Modern Stoicism’ that teaches better happiness wisdom and quality of life can be gained from making better everyday moral choices.  

There is inspiration to be gained from the work of Nobel-prize winning political economist Elinor Ostrom. Central to her work is how groups of individuals in interdependent, and multi-dependent situations, organise and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits “When all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically”.

Ostrum focuses on how to enforce rules where detailed contracts or legal frameworks do not exist. She demonstrates that societies and groups regularly devise autonomous rules and enforcement mechanisms that stop the degradation of nature. Her work challenges those who argue that environmental problems cannot be solved without significant coercive powers. It provides powerful testimony to more informal routes, primarily through social capital, to establish social norms for creating change.

Admittedly, the ‘Latte Levy’ is likely to yield positive results. We need however, to recognise how we are social animals, with individual responsibility to the wider social good, and there is no one right way to model collective action. We cannot rely solely on tactical nudges to secure our going down the right path.

The worry is that disposable coffee cups need more than disposable thinking to solve. We all have choices and it’s more than ‘How do I save 25p on paying a Latte Levy’.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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