Over 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are land-filled, littered or incinerated every year. The government's plan is a start—but we can't wait that longby Mary Creagh / January 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
For most of us, the last thing on our mind before our morning caffeine hit is the environmental impact of the cup it is served in. Still, disposable coffee cups are made mostly of cardboard, and so we are probably in the habit of putting them in a recycling bin. We can then head off to work confident that we have done our bit for the planet.
But consumers have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Over 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are land-filled, littered or incinerated every year—a fact the big coffee chains have been keen to hide. Our annual coffee cup waste is enough to stretch around the world five and a half times. Major coffee shop chains have largely been ignoring this mountain of waste while the government has sat on its hands, in the hope that no-one would notice the scale of the problem.
It’s true, some coffee shops offer a discount to customers who bring in their own reusable cups. This perhaps makes it sound like they are doing their bit—but currently just 1 per cent of coffee sales take place in this way. That must change.
This is why the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am chair, has proposed a 25p “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups to kick start consumer awareness of the environmental threat that coffee cups pose.
The 5p plastic bag charge, which has meant we have used nine billion fewer bags since the ban, is proof of the huge environmental success that can come from a levy. Consumer behaviour can change quickly if the government provides an effective nudge in the right direction. A levy, proven to be more effective at prompting behaviour change than a discount, would encourage people to keep a reusable cup at their desk or bring one with them on their commute—reducing the mountain of coffee cup waste in the UK.
Some cafe chains and packaging producers have dismissed concerns around the environmental impact of coffee cup waste. Yet coffee cups are a much bigger problem than they seem at first glance. For example, in addition to the issues already discussed, nine in ten people dispose of their coffee cup in a paper recycling bin, unaware that coffee residue and the cup’s plastic lining contaminates paper recycling bins and burdens local councils with additional sorting costs.
“The 5p plastic bag charge, which has meant we have used nine billion fewer bags since the ban, is proof of the huge environmental success that could come from a latte levy”
As taxpayers, we fund 90 per cent of the cost of packaging waste disposal. A latte levy might seem like a tax, but the reality is that taxpayers are already bearing the majority of the cost of disposable cup waste. Such a levy could save the taxpayer from the hidden cost of throwing away billions of disposable coffee cups every year, while funding the development of a more sustainable cup, better “binfrastructure” and more reprocessing facilities.
But here’s the worst thing: coffee cups are just the tip of the iceberg. Our busy lifestyles mean eating and drinking on-the-go is increasingly part of our daily routine. This change in consumer behaviour has resulted in mounting paper and plastic packaging waste. Blue Planet II has shown us how this finds its way into our rivers and seas and chokes fish and seabirds. The markets where the UK has historically sold its contaminated plastic waste—largely in Europe and Asia—are drying up. China, the world’s largest waste importer, has put controls on its imports of plastic and paper waste, which has led to fears that we will see a stockpiling of poor quality waste in the UK.
Our “out of sight, out of mind” attitude isn’t sustainable. We need action. A deposit return scheme would ensure our plastic bottles are recycled as efficiently as in other European countries, while installing water fountains would reduce our use of them in the first place.
Last week, Theresa May launched the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, but it ducked the hard questions. We must not wait until 2042 to tackle the pollution crisis. It is good to see the plastic bag charge extended to small retailers, but the government should guarantee that the money raised will go to good causes. Finally, the plan needs to be put into law to ensure future governments stick to it.
The ban on plastic microbeads also came into effect last week; a ban that my committee recommended in 2016. A few years ago, microbeads were dismissed as a negligible, bottom of the pile issue, but we are now acting to turn back the plastic tide. Similarly, coffee cups are now attracting public attention for their environmental effects. A latte levy is a bold, but necessary, step towards reducing the backlog of paper and plastic packaging in the UK.