The Conscious Cup Campaign: Reducing disposables while staying Covid-safe

The provost’s sustainability advisor explains how we can make sustainable changes on campus

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen an unfortunate return in the popularity of disposables: coffee cups, food containers, and masks to name a few. As the world began to slow to its pre-lockdown halt it was common to see signs popping up in restaurants and cafés declaring that they would no longer be accepting reusable containers, in order to protect customers and staff. Many months on, consumers and scientists alike are urging the general public to make the change back to more sustainable choices.

Michelle Hallahan, the provost’s sustainability advisor, wants to encourage Trinity students to continue efforts from recent years to use reusable and sustainable alternatives on campus. As the sustainability advisor, Hallahan is the chair of the Green Campus Committee and writes and implements sustainable policies that are put into place in Trinity.  She did her master’s degree in Environmental Science at Trinity, in 1992. “There wasn’t even a department for environmental science at the time!” She has worked at Greenpeace International and in ecological restoration and environmental consulting. Her role also involves engaging the student population in decision making about environmental efforts in Trinity, like the vote on the wildflower garden on College Green.

Hallahan believes that to see sustainable changes on campus, students and staff must work together: “It’s built into our DNA as humans that we work best not in an interdependent fashion but in a collaborative fashion. We’re not meant to work isolated from each other. We’re not meant to try and fix things on our own. We’re designed to collaborate and to change things as a group of the community. It’s very important that we engage the community in some of that decision making.”

One of the campus-wide efforts Hallahan firmly supports is the use of reusable coffee cups by the Trinity community. In particular, she wants to shed light on the Conscious Cup Campaign’s Contactless Coffee movement. The Conscious Cup Campaign was founded in 2016 with the aim of incentivising consumers to opt for reusables when dining on the go and to cut down on unnecessary waste. They encouraged cafes and restaurants to introduce discounts and loyalty schemes for customers who brought along their own cup. 

In the last few months, the Conscious Cup Campaign has shifted its focus to helping consumers place their trust in reusables again during the Covid-19 pandemic. They want to stop fear-mongering, and to remind the public that with the right precautions, cafes and restaurants can prepare their coffee in a reusable cup just as safely as a disposable one. And so, their Contactless Coffee idea was born.

Contactless Coffee is a method of coffee preparation where baristas prepare your beverage without themselves or their utensils touching your cup. This prevents any possible cross-contamination of the virus from one person’s reusable cup to another. This can be carried out by simply marking a spot on the counter for the customer to place their cup down, or the use of movable trays, depending on the layout of the café. They have also compiled a list of cafés implementing the Contactless Coffee method, and a helpful how-to video, on their website.

The campaign has been backed by the Department of Communication, Climate Action and the Environment and Prof Luke O’Neill, of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity. This comes after over 125 global health experts, including O’Neill, signed a statement in June arguing that reusable packaging and cups are no more dangerous than disposable if treated correctly. 

Will the Contactless Coffee method be implemented on the Trinity campus? Not at the moment, although reusables can certainly be safely used. The buttery is still honouring reusable cups and containers, and the discount for using them still applies. According to Hallahan, staff are wearing gloves and masks while preparing food so students and staff can be assured that their cup is in safe hands. Students interested in a contactless coffee can find one just outside campus walls at Cloud Picker on Pearse Street.

“We need to re-examine how we live on the planet.”

When using reusable cups at the moment, Hallahan believes care for other people should drive us to good hygiene standards to keep baristas and other consumers safe. “If you’re going to live with concern for other human beings then you make sure that your hygiene is of the best order. And also talk to other people. One of the best things you can do in all of this is to educate other people, have conversations with people about why we need to re-examine how we live on the planet.”

In terms of current disposable cups used on campus, Hallahan emphasises that biodegradable or compostable cups are not a sustainable alternative to students bringing their own keep cup, and only marginally better than typical plastic-based packaging. “We need to be moving towards reusable. There are a number of problems with compostable cups. Great, they’re not made from plastic but that’s one tiny little detail! They’re still made from paper, so we’re cutting down forests for something that lasts 20 minutes, in a time when we should be reforesting and not decimating.”

22,000 coffee cups are thrown out in Ireland each hour.”

“Not only are we cutting down forests, but by doing that we are destroying ecosystems, for the sake of one of the most stupidly designed products that have ever been put on the market. No thought went into the long term effect of these coffee cups,” says Hallahan. “22,000 coffee cups are thrown out in Ireland each hour; that’s just an estimate and I would wager that’s an underestimate.” 

Another issue that Hallahan notes with compostable cups is the lack of understanding in the general public about the difference between compostable items and recyclable items. “I stood beside someone when they threw their supposedly compostable coffee cup into the recycling bin, thereby contaminating everything else in the bin. I said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’  And he said: ‘But it’s recyclable!’ He pulled it back out and he pointed to the word ‘compostable’ and he said: ‘See?’” Without the proper knowledge, compostable cups can wreak havoc by contaminating recycling and creating even more waste than they are designed to prevent. 

As well as this, Hallahan cites the emissions associated with manufacture and transport as a deterrent for using disposables. “You have to have the carbon footprint of manufacturing these cups and transporting them halfway across the world. They’re coming from China, the States; they’re coming from Italy and Germany. That’s a huge amount of fossil fuels to transport something that is not a necessity. They’re a disrespectful convenience for humans for the sake of 20 minutes. We destroy the planet for the sake of that convenience and that is unacceptable. And there are many other products aside from the coffee cup you could say the same about. When you start looking into anything to do sustainability, you realise how insane our world is and how badly we’ve designed it. By rights, we should be designing everything on the laws of nature. We’re the only species on the planet that creates pollution. We’re the only planet that pays rent.”

“A coffee cup is a grain of sand on the beach of sustainability.”

“A coffee cup is a grain of sand on the beach of sustainability. There are so many other things that we need to be thinking about. Fast fashion is another aspect of that and this idea that there is an endless supply of everything and we can keep gorging ourselves on nature’s resources. And we can’t, and it has been coming to bite us for the last 20 years at least. Climate change is not going away and it’s going to get significantly worse.”

“The individual can do so much, but we are just the thin end of the wedge.”

“The individual can do so much, but we are just the thin end of the wedge.  Policymakers have to bring in policy; governments have to bring in policy. And the thing is, they’re afraid to do so because they’re all afraid that the big corporate guys will walk away and leave their country. Everyone’s focus is on only the economy and that has led us down this path, or cul-de-sac, that we are on at the moment. They need to know that they have the support from the public.”

Hallahan urges those who have an interest in making Trinity a greener campus to join the Green Campus Committee. “We’re actively recruiting people to sit on nine different subcommittees. Each one has a different topic, one will be on water, one on biodiversity, one on energy conservation, one on waste management, etc. For example, plastic solutions are going to join the waste management group.” 

“The purpose of the committees is to provide a platform for students and staff to come together and drive programmes. If somebody’s passionate about minimising plastic waste or eliminating plastic from campus, then the waste committee will be the one to join. If somebody’s keen on biodiversity and rewilding, they can join a group for that.”

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.