Let’s talk: Coffee cups

The British government recently rejected a bill to impose a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable drinks cups, which was proposed as a way to combat single use plastic. While coffee cups are technically recyclable already, the fact that they are mixed with bonding agents such as plastic polyethylene and contaminated with liquid makes them difficult to recycle, with only three recycling plants in the UK currently able to recycle them.

Should a latte levy be introduced? And more importantly, would it work? We asked two industry experts…

Let’s talk: Coffee cups

Published —

Lyndsey says…

A ‘latte levy’ or disposable coffee cup charge would be the best solution to tackle the UK’s coffee cup waste problem.

BBC’s Blue Planet 2 showed us the impact of our addiction to plastic on the marine environment and since then the willingness to tackle this problem has grown with the public, the government and with businesses. One area that has received attention in the press is disposable coffee cups. It’s estimated we throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups in the UK every year and this is only set to increase as the coffee industry grows. The cups are coated with plastic which means that they are nearly impossible to recycle – currently only 1 in 400 is recycled. They are also commonly littered and can contaminate recycling bins leading to costs on local governments.

So, what is the best way to tackle our reliance on disposable coffee cups? If we follow the waste hierarchy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ then the first step must be to reduce. If more people used reusable coffee cups, then the amount of waste would be reduced. It is therefore important to find the right incentive to encourage this behaviour. A number of coffee chains are offering discounts for customers who bring their own cups, but it’s been shown that discounts are not as effective as charges. A good example of a charge having the desired effect is the 5p charge on single-use plastic carrier bags. Since the introduction of this charge, usage has decreased by around 85%.

But should we decide to just ban disposable coffee cups immediately? Well the trouble with that is that there isn’t really a viable alternative yet, that is easily recyclable. Although we can encourage people to take their own hot drink container, there are occasions when even with the best intentions, we’re caught short. Another benefit of charging for disposable coffee cups is that the funds raised can be used to improve recycling and help fund research into alternative materials.

You might be thinking – why should coffee shops benefit from reduced costs of buying fewer containers? Although there may be some savings to the businesses that sell coffee, this should be seen as another positive way of influencing change for the outcome we want to see – fewer disposable cups. However, there is a need to generally consider the role of plastic producers and retailers in taking on more of the costs of recycling that is currently largely bourn by local authorities. Ideally, we would move to a circular economy where producers and retailers are responsible for the whole life cycle of any materials they use. However, a coffee cup charge can be part of this wider change of approach.

The Environmental Audit Committee suggested that a charge should be introduced urgently and that a ban should come into force by 2023 if coffee cups still cannot be fully recycled. This phased approach has the benefits of delivering swift action using a tried and tested method to drive behaviour change, while also raising the funds to find alternatives and increase recycling, and with a clear and ambitious date to end the use of disposable coffee cups.

Dr Lyndsey Dodds is the head of marine policy at WWF-UK, the UK branch of the world’s leading conservation organisation.


Peter says…

Ultimately, everyone has a responsibility across the chain – we need intervention from everyone, as everyone plays a part. I wouldn’t agree that taxing is the right approach right now. There is a circular way to solve these problems if everyone collaborates.

Our view is that you solve these problems by creating a demand for the material once it’s been collected. We came to the UK as an Australian company looking to work with plastic bottles in the UK, and we took recycling and collection from 3% to above 50%. We created a demand for the UK dairy industry to use recycled post-consumer material for their bottles and specify it in their products. As soon as they specify it, anyone who wanted to sell it to that market had to buy that material, it created a demand and a value to the material. It meant that we could go to waste contractors who were previously landfilling it or burning it and say: “instead of doing that with bottles, we will buy them off you for X amount per tonne.” That translated down to the consumer; “if you as a business put your bottles in this bin, it will cost you half as much as if you had send it with general waste.”

If we can work together to create value and create something useful for paper cups, we can create solutions.

It’s about integrating these products back in as a valuable raw material, and we need more circular ways of thinking. Obviously, if there’s a demand for that, that will then facilitate infrastructure and collection systems, because the waste industry is pretty straight forward. If it’s worth something – it will be collected. This isn’t a problem that the waste industry has got, it’s a problem for the producers and vendors of coffee. I find it frustrating that everyone points the finger at the waste industry.

The more products we make that need cups, the more cups we need, the more valuable they become and then the demand pulls everything out of the marketplace as it has done with paper, glass and cardboard, for example. My fear is that if the industry can’t sort itself out and take the problem as seriously as it needs to be taken, then the government which has made a big stance on solving the problem will be forced to do nothing but tax.

We recently launched a reusable cup made from used coffee cups. It’s probably the first product to promote reuse, while also giving the material a value. The solutions are out there, don’t let anyone say they’re not, it’s just that there are political and commercial reasons getting in the way of them.

Could this problem be solved quickly? Yes, it could. We believe we can make a whole coffee shop out of the materials that a coffee shop generates, and that’s where we need to get to. Get people thinking like that, and a problem is transformed into an opportunity.

Peter Goodwin is the co-founder of Simply Cups, a circular economy-focused waste management company which offers a range of waste and recycling collection solutions to organisations large and small.


Interviews by Jack Atkins


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