In January the Environmental Audit Committee published a report as a result of an inquiry into disposable coffee cup waste. The report made a number of suggestions to address the issue of growing disposable coffee cup waste in the UK. Among these suggestions was a proposed 25p charge on disposable coffee cups which became nicknamed the ‘latte levy’. The suggestion was met with mixed response, with many concerned that this could harm independent businesses, particularly those who rely on a large takeaway customer base. The responses by United Baristas and James Hoffman in particular are worth a read to help understand some of the concerns from the specialty industry. In response to the report many coffee companies sought to highlight that they offered a discount for people using reusable coffee cups (as much as 50p in Pret, but usually around 25p in many other stores). Starbucks, in partnership with Hubbub, introduced a trial 5p cup charge for some of its London stores, in an effort to try and understand how people can be encouraged to use reusable cups. As I have highlighted in previous posts, the switch to reusable coffee cups for many consumers feels more problematic than the switch to reusable carrier bags (due to issues of the size of the cup, carrying a dirty cup around, having to wash it etc).
The government has responded to the report arguing that there will not be a ‘latte levy’ introduced, as it is more appropriate for coffee shops to offer discount to encourage reusable cup use instead.
“The Government has refused to take any decisive action on the complex issue of coffee cups – including the introduction of a ‘latte levy’ – and has instead chosen to rely on voluntary commitments.” (Parliament, 2018)
The Environmental Audit Committee appears disappointed at this response, arguing that it suggests the government is not taking the issues of litter and disposable materials seriously enough, and that it has no real plan of action in this area. The Committee’s report suggested that charges were more effective for changing the situation for the use of coffee cups (in particular citing evidence from the introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge in the UK), rather than discount in stores, and feels this evidence has been ignored.
“Evidence to our inquiry demonstrated that charges work better than discounts for reducing the use of non-recyclable materials – as was the case with the plastic bag charge. By choosing to favour voluntary discounts for reusable cups, the Government is ignoring the evidence about what works”. (Parliament 2018)
Part of the governments justification for its response is that the coffee cups make up less than 1% of total paper packaging waste in the UK, and therefore it should be considering ways to address the packaging and waste management systems more generally.
One of the key points in the Committee report was around consumer confusion about which materials could be recycled, and argued for clearer labelling of coffee cups to help address this. The government response has focused more on anti-litter labelling instead which the leader of the Committee, Mary Creagh, argues misses the point:
“Evidence shows that while 90% of people put their coffee cup in recycling bins, only 0.25% are recycled due to inadequate binfrastructure. The Government’s anti-littering labelling proposal completely misses the point. Consumers deserve to know if their coffee cup will be recycled or not. The Government’s response to my Committee’s recommendation not only lacks ambition, and puts coffee in the ‘too difficult’ Ministerial in-tray”. (Parliament, 2018)
The Committee report also highlighted how there should be some element of producer responsibility in the disposable cup issue, suggesting that there should be more action from packaging companies, and the possibility of a fee on cups produced that are difficult to recycle. While the government has acknowledged that there needs to be some sort of reform in this area, there has been no set of actions outlined.
Finally the Committee report suggested that there should be a target date of 2023 for disposable cups to be banned, if efforts to make them all recyclable were not successful enough. The government has dismissed this suggested deadline arguing ‘100% recycling from collection is unobtainable’, but has acknowledged that there should be ‘challenging, but realistic’ recycling targets.
The government response generally suggests that it intends to take little action in this area, instead pointing to its wider 25 Year Environment Plan that was published in January 2018 and noting that some of the issues raised by the committee will be considered as part of an upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy. For many who were concerned about the potential introduction of a ‘latte levy’ the response from government is likely to be warmly received. However, the scale of the issue still remains, millions of coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every day – a situation that is unsustainable. While some companies have introduced discounts for reusable cups, and many people went out to buy a reusable coffee cup, it is important that the momentum to discuss issues around waste in the coffee shop industry is maintained and that it continues to be addressed. As I have highlighted before, it will take a large shift in behaviour change from consumers (as well as businesses) to change practices surrounding the use of disposable coffee cups, and even though the government may not be introducing charges to incentivise people to change their behaviour, it doesn’t mean that the system cannot be changed by those involved in it. I’ve been encouraged recently by the greater presence of reusable coffee cups on the high street, and in general the visibility of discussions around waste in the coffee shop industry, it would be a shame if in light of the government’s response if this was to disappear.