Author Mark Richards

The UK throws away 2.5bn disposable cups every year – and does not have the facilities to recycle them. Now a committee of MPs is demanding the introduction of a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable cups. Will it work? And what can you do to help solve the problem in the meantime?

What did we talk about in our house over Christmas? Well, when the greed and the gluttony (yes, I’m talking about myself) had been sated we discussed Blue Planet. My children have always been far more environmentally aware than I am – or maybe I was slow to catch up.

When my daughter was 14 or 15 she’d constantly turn the tap off when I was brushing my teeth. I would sigh and tell her that compared to what the Chinese were doing with hydro-electric dams me brushing my teeth didn’t even register on the environmental scale. But now we have a water meter installed, and I have decided I can brush my teeth in a cupful of water.

Similarly, the introduction of a 5p charge for carrier bags did not really impact on me. I am ashamed to say I decided that plastic bags were good value for money. 5p to carry the shopping home and then I used the bag to line my bin at the office.

Again, until I watched Blue Planet, and saw the tide of plastic choking our oceans and the marine life in it.

So now I do not use disposable plastic bags – but back at the office 11:00 comes and I walk downstairs to the Tschibo coffee machine, put my pound in the slot and have a latte macchiato. Sadly, I have my coffee in a disposable cup: one of the disposable cups is still on my desk holding pens, pencil and three wooden stirrers. The other 249 from last year are almost certainly in a landfill site somewhere.

It appears that I am not alone…

The problem with coffee cups

Coffee chains have grown exponentially in the UK over the last ten years: wherever you are, you never seem to be more than walking distance from a Costa, Starbucks or Nero – or at the very worst a serve-yourself machine.  The British Coffee Association estimate that we drink around 55m cups of coffee a day, with almost half the population drinking coffee in coffee shops and cafés. 16% of us visit a coffee shop every day, and as coffee drinkers are generally from a younger demographic there seems little prospect of the trend reversing.

But all that coffee causes a problem: specifically, all the cups that the coffee comes in cause a problem.

55m cups of coffee a day is more than 20bn over the course of the year – and like my coffee from the machine, a significant number of those coffees are served in disposable cups, with the vast majority of the cups ending up in landfill – and I cannot be the only person who wonders if one day we are going to run out of land to fill…

MPs to the rescue?

Why disposable cups are heralding a potential #LatteLevy

But now it appears that the Government is poised to take action, with a committee of MPs calling for the introduction of a ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups – and a total ban on disposable cups unless recycling improves.

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee says the tax should be used to improve the UK’s recycling and reprocessing facilities, with the MPs calling for a 25p levy on disposable cups – which should be banned by 2023 if they are not all being recycled.

The chair of the committee, Labour MP Mary Creagh, said,

“The UK throws away 2.5bn disposable coffee cups every year – enough to circle the planet 5½ times. Almost none are recycled and around half a million are littered. Coffee cup producers and distributors have not taken action to rectify this and … we need to kick-start a revolution in recycling.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, well-known chef and campaigner added his voice:

“The committee has recognised that the huge mountain of coffee cups is effectively unrecyclable and is overwhelming the nation’s waste disposal systems, ultimately polluting our rivers and seas.”

The UK’s problem with recycling

It is easy to be cynical and say that it cannot possibly cost 25p to recycle a coffee cup: that the Government has seen an easy opportunity to raise a hefty chunk of taxation on the back of people’s addiction to their morning coffee and new-found commitment to the environment. But then it was easy to be cynical about the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge as well – and unfortunately, the UK has a real problem.

While disposable coffee cups are technically recyclable, Britain only has three facilities that can split the paper and plastic elements of the cups. Previously much of Britain’s plastic waste went to China, with up to 500,000 tonnes going to China for recycling each year – but now that trade has stopped, with China having recently introduced a ban on ‘foreign garbage.’

So we are going to need to sort out the problem ourselves, and the Government may need to knock industry heads together and make sure that vested interests don’t get in the way of a solution. The British Coffee Association has already said that a levy is not the answer, as it “places an unfair burden on coffee-drinking consumers.” Well, duh, as my children all too frequently say…

Meanwhile, what are the chains doing?

Sadly, it would seem, not enough. ‘I took my reusable cup into Starbucks,’ moaned one dissatisfied customer on Twitter. ‘They made my coffee in a disposable cup then poured it into my cup. The disposable cup went in the bin.’

Starbucks is trialling a 5p charge for a cup in some of its Central London outlets while other chains like Costa and Pret a Manger are giving discounts of up to 50p to people who bring their own cups.

Discounts are a nice carrot, but you suspect – as with carrier bags – that the Government will end up opting for the stick.

And what can you do?

The simple answer is to buy a reusable cup. If I buy one for £10 then it will take me 40 coffees – roughly two months – to break even assuming that a 25p charge was introduced on the office coffee machine. It obviously means I would need to go back to that tedious washing up business: but at least I would be able to watch David Attenborough with a clear conscience….