The effect of the global pandemic on the economy has been widely discussed, but what is often overlooked is the devastating impact on sustainability.
Pre-COVID we had seen an encouraging increase in 'reuse, reduce and recycle' policies but the pandemic has hampered this progress. One major change is cafes unable to accept reusable coffee cups due to contamination risks, leading to more use of non-recyclables.
Our Curtin University research team has found habit is a key driver to environmentally friendly behaviour. So how do we get back into the swing of reaching for the reusable coffee cup first? We came up with two simple solutions - inform about the environmental damage caused by single-use paper cups and keep the reusable cup handy and visible. Prior to the pandemic, around 16 billion paper cups were being thrown away every year, ending up in landfill or the ocean. This is due to a plastic lining on the cups that makes them unrecyclable unless sorted into a separate recycling stream, which is not commonly done.
It is notoriously difficult to change people's behaviours, especially when the desired behaviour requires more effort. It is easy to buy a paper cup and then just throw it away. Using a reusable cup requires remembering to wash it, bring it with you, and wash it again. We need that additional motivation to help us go the extra mile.
In our research, we focused on the two simple steps of information and accessibility. Providing information to consumers about the consequences of using a paper cup activated pro-environmental values when paired with providing a solution, for example using a reusable cup reduces waste. We found this two-pronged approach had study participants using their reusable cups more than twice as much as those in a control group with no intervention.
While initially we may need that deeper level motivation to engage in eco-friendly behaviour, through repeating it over and over again we can form habits that stick with us long-term.
What do we do if the pandemic continues to stand in the way of our good-intentioned sustainability habits? There are alternatives available for businesses, such as cup-deposit schemes where you can pay a small amount of money for a reusable cup and then return it to get the deposit back. Alternatively, as a coffee drinker, you can choose to drink your coffee from a café's own reusable mugs or at home, so that we can help the environment one cup at a time.
- Lisa Novoradovskaya, School of Psychology at Curtin University