The road to living sustainably is paved with good intentions. In a bid to distance ourselves from mountains of plastic waste, many people have invested in cotton bags, reusable coffee cups and become diligent recyclers.

However, our efforts are in vain – too many of us stash these planet-saving purchases in the back of a cupboard and forget about them (and then probably buy other ones).

A cotton tote bag would have to be used 131 times to make its “global warming potential” smaller than a plastic bag, according to an assessment by the UK Environment Agency. A reusable cup would need to be used between 20 to 100 times, according to another analysis by the International Reference Centre for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services.

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There’s a lot more to sustainable living than meets the eye. When looking at the environmental impact of these products we need to consider the impacts of production (use of natural resources, transportation and emissions from manufacture); use (lifespan and environmental impact of use) and how the product is disposed of (pollution to the environment and the cost to recycle).

Keep cups and tote bags are more energy-intensive to make than their plastic alternatives and therefore only better for the environment if they are used to their full potential. 

The inconvenient truth is that remembering a keep cup is often too much for most people, writes Caroline Wood, a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield, in a piece for the The Conversation. She notes that despite the massive public awareness about not throwing away plastic cups, only five per cent of sales in coffee shops go to customers who have keep cups.  

Although technically paper cups are recyclable, almost none of them are recycled in practice because there are only three centres in the UK which can separate the cardboard from the plastic lining which makes the inside waterproof. Shockingly, we throw away 2.5 billion cups every year.

In any case, eliminating single-use cups is a token gesture that could be making us feel we are doing a lot more for the environment than we really are.

Coffee cups make up just 0.7 per cent of UK packaging waste, For a takeaway latte, just five per cent of the carbon footprint comes from the packaging, according to the piece in The Conversation. 

Buying – and properly using – a reusable coffee cup is a drop in the ocean of a much larger problem that requires profound changes to how we consume.

Mark Carney warns companies that fail to respond to climate change ‘will go bankrupt without question’

The world is still way off targets to meet the Paris Climate Agreement to keep temperatures to below 2C. As a number of UN climate reports have said, urgent and significant behavioural changes are needed, including flying less, eating less meat and having less children.

As consumers we need to keep the pressure on and demand governments and large companies make systemic changes on all environmental policies.

Cotton bags and keep cups will not save our planet. 

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