The Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant, funded by UKRI and delivered by the British Science Association and Science Ceilidh, awarded nine community organisations with funding up to £5,000 to run community-led projects related to climate change, realised through collaboration with a researcher. The projects ran between April to October 2022.  

Poster advertising reusable cups

The GRAB Trust was awarded a grant to develop and deliver a three-month trial to reduce waste by supporting cafes in Oban to encourage their customers to switch from single-use plastic to reusable cups.  

Here we find out more about the trial, the structural barriers to climate action encountered by the community, researchers and local businesses along the way and what is needed to help communities build from micro- to macro-level change.  

This case study was prepared by Heather Mendick, Independent Research Consultant, who conducted in-depth interviews with eight community organisers and eight researchers as part of an independent evaluation of the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant scheme. 

About the GRAB Trust 

The GRAB Trust is a charitable social enterprise focused on reducing waste. It has been providing community-based activities related to recycling, litter and reuse in Argyll and Bute for more than 20 years.  

The project: Waste free takeaways 

Kerry MacKay is one of the GRAB Trust’s two Beaches and Marine Litter Project Officers. When she could no longer deliver school workshops because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she began developing new projects that could have an impact on reducing waste. 

The GRAB Trust was funded through the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant to recruit and facilitate cafes in Oban to trial switching customers from single-use plastic cups to reusable cups, and to hold community workshops to support behaviour change as part of the trial.  

Black reusable Ecoffee cup on a red brick wall

They secured a donation of 2,500 reusable cups from Ecoffee Cup and provided these free to participating small businesses, who publicised their participation online and offline.  

Business owners could keep the income from selling cups at £4 each on the condition that they invested this in a sustainable improvement for their business. Over the three-month trial, cafe staff were asked to keep tally charts recording drink sales by single-use plastic vs reusable cups.  

Researcher Marylyn Carrigan, Professor of Marketing and Sustainability at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Business School, visited participating businesses at the start and end of the trial to talk to small business owners. She was joined by a second researcher, Victoria Wells, Professor of Sustainable Management at University of York, on the visit at the end of the trial.  

The full findings will be shared in a report with Argyll and Bute Council and local businesses, using engaging infographics and giving top tips for making their businesses greener.   

Overall, both the number of businesses taking part in the trial and the uptake of reusable cups by customers were lower than Kerry had expected. For example, one typical cafe that maintained tallies throughout the trial sold 47 Ecoffee Cups, 46 other reusable cups and 7,378 single-use cups (98% of the total cups sold).  

Most of the project’s findings explore the barriers to behaviour change and possible ways to overcome these.  

You can find out more about the initial impact of the project in this video from the GRAB Trust:

Are you having trouble viewing this video? If so, you can watch it here on YouTube (link will open in a new window).

Sometimes you learn more when things don’t work out as planned 

Poster advertising reusable cups in a cafe window in Oban, Scotland

Thinking back to the start of the project, Kerry recalls: “I was really optimistic, thinking: Oh, we’re going to save thousands of cups, we’re going to change the world. And yeah, we find a lot of barriers. … I definitely had to do a mind frame change”. However, this has not made the project a failure. Quite the opposite.  

Expanding on the reasons why take up was so low, Kerry explains that with tourists, “most of the feedback was really positive. But they didn’t want a reusable cup.”  

Many locals took part but “there’d be plenty of days where they forgot it, or it was left at home or still dirty.”  

Businesses “don’t have enough staff, they’re just trying to make ends meet.” Some “don’t even think they’re going to survive the winter. So understandably filling in a tally and doing a questionnaire is low in their priorities.”  

While Kerry pondered taking an “eco-dictator” approach, small business owners “don’t want to come in really hard hitting say, ‘Okay, we’re only doing reusables. If you don’t have a cup, we’re not serving you’, because they don’t want to lose the customers.” 

Ahead of her second visit to Oban, researcher Marylyn reflected on the positive learnings they were taking from the challenges of the trial:  

I’m not quite sure we’ll learn how to make it work effectively but we’re certainly learning a lot of the reasons why it’s not working. And those are useful because they then give us the pinch points that we need to cut through next time… [Oban has been] a real-life living lab.

Marylyn imagines taking the evidence back to businesses that did not participate in the trial to persuade them: “I know you were a little bit cynical about this, or I know you said this was a problem, but we’ve really tried to resolve this and we think we have now, so would you come with us?”  

Reflecting on the process, Kerry wants “more funding done like this… [With] some funding you feel you have to sugar coat everything and try your best to deliver the outcome. Whereas this way, I think we’ve learned a lot more about the bigger picture of how everything works.”  

Community projects need support to go beyond the micro 

Recycling logo with three arrows adjoined in a triangle

The project’s findings illuminate structural barriers to climate action. For example, Kerry explains that many Oban businesses are “spending double the amount of money to buy compostable cups, and cutlery and plates.”  

However, the most-common brand, Vegware, only composts via high temperature industrial composting and is not recyclable, so in Oban it ends up in landfill: “[Businesses] were trying really hard, thinking they were doing what was good, but other pieces of the jigsaw are missing, out of their control, that they weren’t aware of… They feel very let down and that they’re kind of stuck.  

Before beginning this project, Kerry thought she had a good understanding of the economic blocks on climate action. But through this trial, she has developed a deeper understanding.  

Speaking of Oban residents, she says:  

If they’ve got kids, they’re struggling to make ends meet, working two jobs, rushing around because the buses are terrible here… Grabbing their cup and making sure they’ve got everything with them – that is really low priority. Even just buying a cup could be way too much for them. It could be financially unachievable. They’re literally living day to day, not even sure if they’re going to be able to afford the heating, because rent and housing costs in Argyll, particularly Oban, are horrendous… So it’s such a bigger picture than just: Oh, you forgot your cup… This trial has just hammered that home, that if you want people to care about these bigger picture things, they have to have their own small picture comfortable.

Kerry points to the impact of government policies on the ability to achieve meaningful climate action: council recycling facilities, cuts to local authority funding, public transport provision, low wages, rising fuel and food prices, the housing crisis and the role of second homes in that, and the austerity driving all of these.  

A very real tension lies between empowering communities to act locally, and the regional, national and international economic and social inequalities that disempower communities.  

Funding schemes should support communities to build from micro- to macro-level change. 

Small community projects don’t have enough status in academia 

Graphic with the text

In comparison to the insights from this small project, Marylyn notes that with much larger funded projects, “too often they miss what’s really going on, on the ground – what’s really happening at the community level and particularly at household level – and a lot of the behaviour changes they’re looking for overlook understanding what it feels like for real people and real businesses.”  

There is too much focus on “grand challenges” rather than on “research making an actual difference to people. … I do believe if people make that change in something like this, say they stop using single-use cups, I think they start to notice other things in their life and they start to do different things.”  

Marylyn is aware that her “work doesn’t align to the [Edinburgh] Business School’s normal strategy and expectations.” She and Victoria did this because: “We like working with small groups. We like working with communities.”  

But in their respective universities since the COVID-19 pandemic, Marylyn said: 

It’s been chaos. We’ve been so busy. And, in other circumstances, I would have tried to find more time to actually go up and visit more and do more. You know, be on the ground more. It was just impossible. Doing the day job, the full day job, with trying to fit this in, just meant I couldn’t give it the time I would like to have given it 

Other participants from universities discussed similar pressures. To carve out space, “the way to justify that would have been had I brought some money in.” If she creates an impact case study from this project for the national assessment of higher education research that is used to allocate government funding, “our universities would be really happy”, but without it, it’s difficult to find time to allocate to the project.   

While projects were informed that their funding could be used to include researcher time, and they were offered the opportunity to request additional funding after meeting with their researchers and finalising their project plans, Marylyn and other researchers expressed concern that, given the small total budget, covering their time would take money away from the community – which was the real focus for the project. 

As well as providing money for buying out her time, Marylyn hopes to see funders working to raise the status of community projects:

[Universities are] keen on their profile and how they look. And I think, if it’s seen to be thought of as important by the big funders, the small pots are just as important as the big pots, that will be persuasive to the universities. … That would probably ease my journey into doing the next one.

Find out what’s next for the Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grant