September 14th, 2018
by Tanguy Tomes
It’s Friday afternoon, it’s summer, and it’s hot. It’s fair to say that office productivity has been better. The collective Eunomia head office mind turns to the critical question: where are we going for post-work drinks? But, this being Eunomia, our decision-making process is a little different.
Of course, we’re looking for a nearby pub with a good range of drinks and a suitably large, sun-kissed outdoor area; but we also want to prevent waste. With so many pubs now only allowing single use plastic glasses outdoors, what options do we have if we want to stick to reusables? The answer: disappointingly few.
Pint of principle
Arnolfini meets many of our criteria, but when we asked if we could take reusable cups outside, the answer came back: “I’m afraid not; but our cups are biodegradable!” Regular Isonomia readers will already know why the offer of single use biodegradables wasn’t a compelling proposition.
What was most frustrating about that exchange, though, was not that it meant ruling out one of the sunniest waterfront spots in central Bristol. Rather, it was that their choice of biodegradables was so clearly implemented with the best of intentions, but was unlikely to bring about real environmental benefits.
Instead of just accepting that Arnolfini was off limits, the following week I got in touch with Bristol Beer Factory, who run the bar there. I explained why their biodegradable solution was probably not significantly better than ordinary single use plastics: given their harbourside location, lost biodegradables would probably end up in the water. Despite their name, most biodegradable plastics will only break down quickly if they are industrially composted. In cold conditions with little oxygen or sunlight, they will degrade slowly if at all, and may well find their way into the ocean.
I wasn’t really sure what kind of response I’d get when I first reached out, but my exchanges with Domhnaill from Bristol Beer Factory turned out to be really productive and rewarding. He explained that the debate around the pros and cons of ‘bio-degradable’ cups was news to him, but that there were some licensing issues preventing the use of glass outside. I suggested a cup deposit scheme.
A positive note
I returned from leave a week or so later to a lovely note containing some fantastic news – the deposit scheme idea was a goer. As of September, Arnolfini only offers reusable cups for their outdoor customers. They charge a £2 deposit for the cup, which is refundable upon its safe return. Now, if that’s not a good reason to have a drink there this Friday, I don’t know what is.
But there was a line in Domhnaill’s note which particularly struck a chord with me:
“our ambition to reduce as far as possible our impact on the environment is only achievable through a process of continuous education and then acting upon this new information.”
That really got me thinking.
Most people want to do good and for their businesses to be sustainable – but as the Arnolfini case shows, one of the biggest barriers is awareness. As environmentalists, we are incredibly well-placed to break down that barrier.
It’s not the first time I’ve been out and about and noticed environmental bad practice. I’ve definitely been to other bars where they serve in single-use cups or to festivals where they haven’t provided recycling bins; but I’d never followed up on those before. And I bet I’m not alone on that. But if people in the environment sector, who spend most of our days thinking about these things, don’t pursue these questions and push for change, who will?
Raising the bar
While we yearn to make a tangible impact, sometimes we fear that we can’t make a difference. I think there’s an element of perceived helplessness – or even hopelessness – when in the face of big, global environmental problems which can blind us to the opportunities to drive changes on a smaller, local scale. And yet we’re surrounded by dozens of potential easy wins! I’m sure we all notice them:
- Your local café: does it offer free tap water refills for people who have brought their own water bottles?
- Your local corner shop: it doesn’t have to charge for carrier bags, but it could!
- The last conference you attended: did it provide returnable reusable coffee cups?
However, I’m equally sure that, once we’ve tutted about them, we generally forget about them and move on. But what’s to stop us from taking a few minutes to ask what’s driving their current practice, and whether they’d consider changing?
Sure, some of these conversations might not all go as you’d hope, but some will yield successes. You’ve almost certainly got more chance of effecting change by giving bespoke feedback to smaller companies than by knocking on the door of the big multi-nationals (although, of course, there’s no need to be shy about doing that either).
There’s not much time or effort required, if you have the knowledge. Looking back, the main reasons why I haven’t done it before would be partly the social awkwardness of seeming to criticise what others are doing, and partly a lack of appreciation that this direct approach could even work! But my recent experience shows that it certainly can.
So, readers, I set you a challenge. Between now and Christmas, if you find yourself out and about, asking yourself “why are they doing this?” or perhaps “why don’t they do that?” – just ask!
I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? You never know, you might even get a free drink out of it!