08 Jan

Waking up from our coffee cup nightmare

latte levy, coffee cup tax

Photo courtesy of Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash

The UK starts to wake up from a coffee cup nightmare, but we’re still snoring here.

Ring ring…..alarm bell ringing….wake up. Don’t press the snooze button. Just get up and smell the coffee.
Isn’t it great to see that the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee, the EAC, have released a report recommending that a 25p levy is added to hot drinks served in disposable/throwaway cups – dubbed the coffee cup tax or latte levy.
We’re delighted that the UK has, at last, woken up and started to confront the disposable cup nightmare that is growing by the day. We have the same problem in Ireland but as yet we only see procrastination at Government level, as they claim to be ‘evaluating’ options. Sounds more like like snoring?

There is simply no way this horrendous and completely avoidable problem can be put back in its box. Just watch any Sky Ocean Rescue TV programme to see the disaster that is ocean plastic pollution. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee has, like any environmentally literate person, wisely seen the reality and recognised that the burgeoning mountain of disposable coffee cups is effectively un-recylable.
Like the situation in Ireland, it is overwhelming the UK’s waste treatment systems, polluting rivers and seas, and must be stopped. The situation cannot be allowed to continue. It’s completely at odds with the EU’s Circular Economy direction. The time has come for us all to make a stand. We need to tell the coffee shop businesses, their cup suppliers and customers to stop making and using badly designed products and expecting the us, taxpayer, to pay for their clean up.
You see, they pay only a fraction towards the infrastructure costs of the little recycling that actually goes on at present. And we will need a lot of expensive infrastructure to handle the volume of waste cups – 2.5 billion coffee cups being used yearly in the UK alone. The make up of the cups, being either wax or plastic and paper means it is difficult to separate the paper and only specialist equipment can do it properly. There are currently only three recycling facilities in the UK that can split the paper from the plastic for recycling, and none in Ireland. That’s why less than 1% of cups are recycled.
So what happens to all the used cups? They mainly go to create fuel for Incinerators or become part of the RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel) mix and get burned or end up on landfill. After a few moments of use for drinking they endure decades or longer in landfills.

Disposable Coffee cups are used for a matter of moments, but will pollute our planet for centuries to come.

Will the extra charges work?

That’s debatable. Let’s look back at the plastic bag tax, pioneered in Ireland and now widely copied around the world, most recently in Kenya  with the toughest ban to date. Plastic bag usage was drastically reduced within months. The tax started low and has steadily increased in Ireland, with the revenue raised being promised to support environmental projects. (This now seems to be under question in Ireland as transparency in the use of the funds is being eroded). However the success of the plastic bag tax generally saw an 85% or more reduction in the amount of single-use plastic bags being sold. Kenya expects to see 100% reduction due to the complete ban and the stiff penalties.
While it may work for plastic bags, it is less likely to have such an impact for coffee drinkers. It’s like raising the tax on cigarettes. It does not have a significant impact as smokers or coffee drinkers will absorb the extra cost.. Coffee prices vary from place to place so it may not be readily apparent to the consumer, who may not then take a moment to reflect and change his/her ways..

But is it just?

Why should the coffee drinker have to pay for failures of others to design suitable containers (e.g the disposable coffee cup) that can be recycled easily? We think the customer should NOT pick up this tab. It should be absorbed by the coffee shop or supplier. This will incentivise them to find better solutions, like offering re-usable cups. After all they consume the coffee and rent the container while doing so. They should therefore only pay for the coffee and let the supplier deal with the mechanics of the delivery method. This will encourage suppliers to find the best long term solution, and it will not be better disposables. We are entering the circular economy era and the old linear approach of take, make and forsake no longer works.

What we’d prefer to see is

  1. Producer pays principle. Make suppliers pay for producing mixed material packaging that is difficult to recycle (e.g. tetra paks and disposable coffee cups are such products). The producers of this waste must take financial responsibility, not the taxpayer or customer.
  2.  Clear labelling– customers must know that cups are ‘not widely recycled’ and shouldn’t be fooled by misleading indicators or green washing.
  3. Full costs recovered. The suppliers of these un-recyclable cups should pay the full cost of the infrastructure needed to recycle them and not have it subsidized by the state. The taxpayer, after all, is also the consumer here and pays twice under the levy proposals.
  4. 100% by 2020. All coffee & beverage cups being used should be 100% recycled, and if they can’t be – they should be banned from the market place.
  5.  Reward good behavour. Immediately implement standard discounts across all coffee shops for customers who bring a re-usable cup like the current Conscious Cup campaign that operates internationally.

But in the end, finding that right solution will be a matter for law and regulation, not just mere financial incentives.
As the UK’s EAC report states: “The voluntary approach is not working”. So any new legislation needs to set a date after which the continued production of unrecyclable coffee cups and other such containers is banned by law (Just like in Kenya today).

We must stop the production of all non-recyclable plastic products. Period!

Our government needs to take note of this report’s recommendations and help us to end the flow of plastic entering our landfills, oceans and food chain.

So,what can I do now?

You can take action now by joining the #consciouscup campaign and getting yourself a reusable coffee cup so you can say goodbye to the disposable cup era once and for all.
Oh, share the care by inviting your friends for a conscious cup of coffee and get them to do the same.