That cup of coffee you’re drinking – is it costing the earth?

It doesn’t seem that long ago since trying to find a decent cappuccino in Dublin was a chore. Now, the proliferation of cafes and coffee stalls means that you’re never more than an arm’s length away from a large/tall/grande double skinny latte (remember when you used to just ask for a coffee!).

While this is good news for coffee sellers, it’s bad news for the environment as that takeaway coffee cup you’ve just used is probably not compostable (they do exist but I know of only one café in Dublin using them), and is very difficult or impossible to recycle (due to the lining of polyethylene which is required to keep the liquid inside hot and to stop it from leaking). It’s most likely that the cup will end up going to landfill where it’ll take several hundred years to break down.

coffee short-1-2If you’re a regular takeaway coffee (or tea for that matter) drinker, why not invest in a re-useable coffee cup? There are any number of styles to choose from (mine is pictured above). Buying one not only reduces the number of these cups being used and disposed of but also, and you can take my word for it, the coffee tastes infinitely better.

The stats:

I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of takeaway coffee/tea cups that that end up in landfill in Ireland every year, so I decided to do my own back-of-the-envelope calculations:

Let’s say one coffee stall sells 200 cups of coffee/tea each day = 200

Coffee stall operates 5 days per week = 200 x 5 = 1,000 cups

Coffee stall operates 48 weeks per year = 1,000 x 48 = 48,000 cups

Now let’s assume that there 20 such coffee stalls operating in Dublin, 10 each in Galway, Cork and Limerick = 50 x 48,000 = **2,400,000** cups annually.

That’s a lot of cups, many or most of which may be going to landfill. I haven’t even looked at the number of takeaway cups used by cafés, of which there are hundreds around the country – if you include these that 2.4m figure would probably increase a number of times. Makes you think doesn’t it; if everyone bought a re-useable cup, how much could that figure be reduced by?

Interestingly, after I had my blog drafted, a prescient article appeared in the Guardian newspaper. Based on its findings I reckon my own estimates above for Ireland are probably way too (unfortunately) conservative…

Can you put a value on nature?

Woods-768x608Among relatively new entries to the “eco” lexicon is the term natural capital. From the many definitions I’ve come across I can probably best describe it as being a method of recognising the eco-system services that our natural capital provides us, such as water supplies (from springs, streams and rivers), arable land (from soil) and air quality (from trees and plants).

I recently spent some time in Rathfarnham’s Marley Park with Paddy Wordworth, a great proponent of the idea of natural capital. He spoke passionately about the subject and how (put simply) our rivers, forests and soils provide eco-system services on which our economy is based. An example he gave is how a recent study has shown that strategic tree planting can contribute to very cost-effective flood management systems, which can obviously benefit home and business owners in the long-term.

The Irish Forum for Natural Capital (IFNC) was set up to raise general awareness about natural capital. As Chair of the Business & Economics Working Group of the IFNC, I’m looking at it from a slightly different angle. The group comprises a number of people, from both the private and public sectors, and we’re examining ways to get companies engaged on the subject. The rationale is that if companies identify risks to their business, through researching the eco-system services on which they are dependent, they can put a value or cost of those risks. Once the potential financial impact is determined, this may encourage companies to examine ways to mitigate against such risks; for example, by working with third parties to look at ways of preventing water pollution or flooding.

It was lovely, as always, to spend time in a forest, albeit in an urban park setting. Most Sundays I’m out tramping around some part of the Dublin or Wicklow hills, refreshing both mind and body. With Easter just around the corner, why not spend some time amidst our country’s wonderful natural capital?

Have a look at the Coillte Outdoors website for some ideas.


For a more detailed natural capital description, visit the Irish Forum for Natural Capital (IFNC) website.

Tree planting and flood prevention: Countryfile, tree planting can reduce flood risk, finds study.

Where has all the Ice Gone?

Mer de Glace-1

Have you ever wondered if all that stuff you read about glacier retreat is true? Sometimes the statistics are so alarming it’s hard to believe things could be that bad. And if the retreat is happening that fast, is there anything we can do to try to slow it down?

A recent trip to the French Alps afforded me the opportunity to see the effect that climate change is having on the magnificent glaciers around Mont Blanc. The Mer du Glace (sea of ice) became a tourist destination back in the late 1800s, when pack mules were used to bring Victorian tourists up to see this enormous glacier, perched as it was then over the village of Chamonix. By 1908, travellers could use the newly-built cog railway to make the ascent to the bottom of the glacier. A hotel was then built above the glacier to accommodate tourists, such was the demand.

Hard to believe then, that in the space of 100 years or so, the bottom of the glacier can now only barely be seen from the hotel’s terrace; when the hotel was built, the terrace afforded the best vantage point of where the glacier gently rolled to a stop.

But in less than 30 years, the change in the Mer de Glace, and its near neighbour, the Bossons Glacier, is quite breath-taking. Take a look at the “Then and Now” photographs below to see what glacier retreat looks like up close.

Mer de Glace-2

Glacier retreat is a naturally occurring phenomenon; the rate at which these and other glaciers worldwide are receding is faster though than nature intended, and much of it is due to climate change.

The glacier can now only barely be seen from the Montevers Hotel. A red circle highlights this 3 storey building about 5km from where I was standing for this photo.

But it’s not too late to try to slow down this grim march. Getting involved in the discussions around the COP21 talks in Paris, taking public transport instead of your car, investing in a re-usable water bottle and coffee cup might seem small in the grand scheme of things – but if we all do small stuff, it can lead to an improved environment, especially for those glaciers.

The numbers in detail (for the really interested…) ……

The Mer De Glace drains the north side of Mont Blanc. This is the largest glacier in this section of the Alps at 12 km in length. At Montenvers, the glacier has thinned 150 meters between 1820 and 2004(1). In latter times, the glacier has lost 70 meters in thickness at Montenvers between 1990-2010, as it has retreated. Between 1994-2008 the Mer De Glace retreated more than 500 metres(2). Scientists predict that it will retreat by a further 1,200 m by 2040, and that this figure is likely to be a minimum(3).


1 – Mer de Glace, Glacier Retreat-A Receding Sea – April 4, 2010 by Mauri Pelto

2 – Relative contribution of surface mass-balance and ice-flux changes to the accelerated thinning of Mer de Glace, French Alps, over 1979–2008
Authors: Berthier, Etienne; Vincent, Christian
Source: Journal of Glaciology, Volume 58, Number 209, June 2012, pp. 501-512(12)
Publisher: International Glaciological Society

3 – Future fluctuations of Mer de Glace, French Alps, assessed using a parameterized model calibrated with past thickness changes
Authors: Vincent, C.; Harter, M.; Gilbert, A.; Berthier, E.; Six, D.
Source: Annals of Glaciology, Volume 55, Number 66, May 2014, pp. 15-24(10)
Publisher: International Glaciological Society