The Cuppa Paradox – How Small Numbers Can Become Huge

mugs of cafe mocha

I have been dipping in and out of book called How Bad Are Bananas recently and it was interesting to see just what the carbon footprint of some everyday things are. My brain started working in its usual analytical way and on the back of an envelope I started jotting down a few numbers here and there. What I got from this is the fact that tiny numbers when seen individually can add up to huge sums when collective change is made.

I decided to take one thing that many people can related to in order to illustrate my rather curious conclusion: the humble cuppa.

According to the UK Tea Council, around 165 million cups of tea and 70 million cups of coffee are consumed each day in the UK. At the 2010 UK population of 62.3 million, that is 3.77 cups per capita per day.

Going back to the book, it seems that the average cup of tea or coffee with milk, boiling only the water you need, generates around 53g of CO2e (CO2 equivalent). While 98% of the cups made do include milk, I’ll take into account the other 2% that don’t where the carbon footprint is only around 21g of CO2e per cup.

This means that each day the UK generates 12,304.6 tonnes of CO2e because of our hot drink addiction. But what if we could reduce the number of cups per capita per day from 3.77 to just 3?

Being absolutely precise (by not rounding to 3.77 but rather leaving it at 235/62.3), that would equate to 48,100,000 fewer cups per day across the country.

= 17,556,500,000 fewer cups per year (that’s 17.5 billion!)

= 919,258.34 fewer tonnes of CO2e per year

= 91,925.834 average personal carbon footprints (at 10 tonnes per person per year*)

= roughly the population of Southport

* the World Bank put the figure in the UK at 8.8 tonnes per capita per year (2007) but this does not include all possible sources of emissions

Now I’ve never been to Southport before but to me the fact that we can save the carbon emissions generated by an entire city from just having a few less cups of tea or coffee a week is quite incredible.

Start Small Or Aim High?

If we can take a whole city off the carbon map with a fairly small change in individual habits, what might we be able to do with 10 such changes or 50 such changes? How quickly could they add up to a significant percentage reduction?

I guess there are 2 sides to the coin here:

  1. On the one hand, by making lots of relatively small changes to our habits as consumers we can reduce our emission levels without any major adjustments to our lives.
  2. The biggest contributors to our personal carbon footprints also offer the biggest potential savings so we should start by focusing on them instead of trying to do too many things at once.

Being pragmatic I’d say that it’s not an either/or decision but rather a question of balance.

Green Thinking Is Not Always Easy

The same problem comes up with both of the approaches and it’s the human mind that causes it. Most of us lead very busy lives and what with work and family life tying you down, even the smallest alterations to your routines can be difficult to implement.

Making a single change such as the hot drink scenario above is manageable for most of us but imagine having to adjust 10 or even 20 small things in your life. Would you remember what they all are? Would you really be committed to each of them all of the time or would you forego them during really busy periods?

Making big changes to one or two behaviours is just as difficult sometimes because they generally have a greater impact on our lives. Reducing the number of journeys made by car for instance requires planning and execution to ensure that you still make it where you want to go, when you need to be there. How long will it take to walk/cycle somewhere? When do the buses/trains/trams leave?

When time is an issue and all the stresses of life are on top of you, who really has the time to think about their environmental impact? Very few people I’d wager.

Slowly Slowly Catch A Monkey

My question before of whether to start small or aim high wasn’t really a question at all then in my opinion. We have to do both.

Whether it’s big gestures such as flying fewer miles each year or tiny ones such as using a refillable water bottle instead of buying something from the fridge aisle, it is possible to start small whatever you choose to do.

For example, you don’t have to cut out holidays abroad altogether but there might be alternatives to flying somewhere, especially if it’s to mainland Europe. Travel by train is particularly clean when compared to flying or driving somewhere and if you take into consideration all the waiting around you have to do at airports, the travel time by train is not always as bad as you might think.

Remember that 62.3 million people all making small reductions to their carbon footprint can add up very quickly indeed so even if you think you aren’t really helping by spending 2 minutes less in the shower each day, if everyone did the same then we could take another town or city off the carbon map.

But don’t try and make all the changes at once. It will take time for adjustments to your behaviour to become habitual so do one or two things at a time, wait for them to become just another part of your life and then try a couple more things.

Or, if you are trying to become more energy efficient, don’t attempt to insulate the loft, the walls and the floor all at once while also installing double glazing and preventing any drafts – make the changes one at a time as and when you can afford them.

Right now I’m focusing my time and effort on reducing the food waste I throw in the bin each week and 2 weekends ago I bought some self adhesive foam strips to block the gaps around my old single glazed windows. I know that individually these changes are tiny but inaction is not really an option in my opinion so I’ll plough ahead with them while encouraging as many people as possible to do the same.

Are you going to join me in taking up the challenge?

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


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