This time last year, I kicked off 2017 with a plea to stop using disposable coffee cups. In a piece of remarkably good timing, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published its report on disposable coffee cups yesterday, almost a year to the day after my piece. Now, I can’t take all (any?) of the credit for this: plenty of people, some of them a lot more influential than me, have been making the point for several years now, although seemingly with little effect.
According to the report, at least 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year, with ½ million coffee cups being dropped as litter each day. What’s worse is that a lot of these cups are put into recycling bins by well-meaning consumers who think that they are recyclable when in fact they are not. This potentially contaminates the whole load, which means that it’s worse than just throwing them away. As the report notes, a depressingly small 1 in 400 disposable coffee cups are recycled.
In response to this, the report’s proposed solution is a minimum 25p levy on each disposable cup, something which has met with mixed reactions within the speciality coffee industry.
You can see what I make of it all after the gallery.
Quite a lot has already been written about the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report but I’d urge you to read it for yourself. Its headline-grabbing proposal is “a minimum 25p levy on disposable cups, to be paid by the consumer on top of the price of the coffee”. This, the report estimates, “would lead to a 30% reduction in the use of disposable cups, generating £438 million of revenue”. Of course, what happens to that revenue is important, with the report recommending that it “should be collected and managed by a central body and used to fund recycling infrastructure for the remaining cups in use”.
The initial reaction (as I write this, the report has been out for less than 24 hours) has been mixed within the speciality coffee community. There is justifiable concern about the implementation and the impact on small businesses. For example, will the charge apply to all coffee shops, or, like the recent introduction of a 5p levy on plastic carrier bags, will there be a cut-off point in the size of business, below which the charge will not apply? From my (admittedly brief) reading of the report, while it seems aimed at the larger coffee chains, it’s not clear if it envisages a cut-off in the charge or if it intended to apply to all reusable cups, regardless of the size of the outlet.
While the committee and the report it produced probably hasn’t considered the impact on the smaller, independent side of the speciality industry, on the whole I found it well thought out and well-reasoned. In presenting a levy on disposable cup use, it is not suggesting that this, in itself, is the solution (in contrast, the 5p levy on plastic bags has led to an 87% decrease in usage). Instead it recommends using the levy to raise revenue and using that revenue to fund recycling facilities, which, in as far as it goes, is a good idea.
What disappoints me is the coffee industry’s track record. We’ve known for a long time that disposable coffee cups aren’t recyclable. Caffeine Magazine wrote about it back in 2014, but most people still believe that coffee cups are recyclable and we’ve done little to challenge that. Perhaps I’m missing something since these days I always take my own cup, but I can’t remember any coffee shop I’ve visited prominently drawing consumers attention to the fact that the takeaway cups can’t generally be recycled. This is something that the report forcibly points out in one of its first recommendations: “Coffee shops with in-store recycling schemes should place a ‘recyclable in stores only’ label on their coffee cups. Those without in-store recycling should print their cups with a ‘not widely recycled’ label.”
The challenge, therefore, is to both educate the customer and provide the necessary facilities. There have been some attempts to tackle this, which are noted by the report, but they’ve been uncoordinated. One such approach is to use compostable cups, but this relies on the customer knowing that the cup is compostable and also having somewhere to compost it (compostable cups which go into landfill are very unlikely to compost, something pointed out by Bean Thinking’s excellent article on the subject). I’m okay, since I have a compost heap at home, but that still relies on me carrying the used cup home with me, at which point, frankly, I may as well be carrying a reusable cup around with me instead of a compostable one.
The solution envisaged by the report has similar problems. Unless manufacturers, spurred on by the levy, introduce cups that can be recycled with general paper waste, there still remains the problem of how to get the disposable cups to the dedicated recycling facilities. There are suggestions of in-store recycling bins, but I’m not sure that works since the whole point of the disposable cup is that you take it with you. How many people are going to then carry it back to the shop to recycle it? Again, at that point, you may as well be carrying a reusable cup around with you.
For such a scheme to work, coffee cup recycling bins (which, the report envisages, would be part of larger efforts to tackle “to-go” packaging) would have to be ubiquitous. They’d need to be on street corners, in stations, on trains, in offices… Everywhere in fact. The alternative is that I have to carry my dirty coffee cup with me until I find a suitable place to recycle it, at which point (you probably know what I’m going to say by now), I may as well be carrying a reusable cup around with me.
Although the report is ambitious, I’m not sure that what it proposes is achievable. While the headline-grabbing “latte levy” garnered a lot of attention, there was this, less widely-reported, recommendation that:
“the Government sets a target that all single use coffee cups disposed of in recycling bins should be recycled by 2023. If an effective recycling system is not established and achieves high levels of recycling by this date, the Government should ban disposable coffee cups.”
Now that’s a goal I can get behind! Honestly, we don’t need a 25p levy. We also don’t need to wait until 2023. The power to solve this particular problem lies in our own hands. We can just stop using the damn things. Then we wouldn’t even to ban them because there would be minimal demand.
That was my plea this time last year and I make it again this year. I’m pleased to note that some, like my friends at Bean There At, have taken this to heart, but there’s still a long way to go. Obviously 2017 wasn’t the year we kicked the disposable cup, but let’s try to make it in 2018, or at least make some serious in-roads.
For an alternative take on the report, try this from Coventry University, while for a couple of excellent, well thought out and clearly presented responses from an industry perspective, while James Hoffman also weighs in on the issue. Fellow coffee-blogger Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato also shares her thoughts.
Meanwhile, the lovely people over at the Boston Tea Party have taken this to its logical conclusion and have done what I and others have been asking: from 1st June 2018, single-use takeaway cups will no longer be available from BTP cafes. You can read all about what BTP is doing, and why, along with how this is going to work, over on the BTP Cafe Blog.
December 2018: Reusable Cups, A Year On was a runner-up for the 2018 Most Popular Coffee Spot Award.
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