The British have long had a love affair with coffee. In our homes, at work, and on our highstreets, we collectively drink approximately 55 million cups of it a day. Yet, the nation’s caffeine compulsion is manifesting itself as a mounting environmental problem, largely through the way in which most coffee cups are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.
In light of this fact, the Environmental Audit Committee has recently recommended that the Government should introduce a minimum charge of 25 pence on disposable cups, to be paid for by the consumer on top of the price of their beverage. The ‘latte levy’ has been touted as a good way of tackling the problem of disposable coffee cup waste – much in the same way as England has seen a dramatic fall in the use of plastic carrier bags since the introduction of a five pence charge in most shops in 2015. The question is, will it work?
Any rational economist will say that, for most goods at least, as the price of something goes up, the demand for it goes down. A consequence of this is that people will probably look for substitutes – as was observed with the rise in ‘Bags for Life’ after the first plastic bag charges were introduced in the UK. The logic goes, therefore, that by explicitly taxing people for the cup into which their coffee is eventually poured, they will invest in reusable cups to avoid the new charge.
There could be two reasons which prevent the latte levy from being as successful as the plastic bag charge in terms of cutting down on waste. First, at the essence of an on the go coffee is convenience. One buys a coffee, drinks it, and disposes of the cup accordingly. Indeed, the majority of disposable coffee cups are consumed whilst people are ‘on the move’. The alternative of carrying around a reusable cup, both before and after one wants a coffee, seems somewhat conflicting with that notion of convenience.
Admittedly, sales of reusable coffee cups have increased since the Government first hinted at the introduction of a charge on disposable cups – and not least because the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has given one to each of his colleagues in cabinet. Whether or not they get used, however, is another question.
Interestingly, one scheme in Germany recognises the fact that not everyone remembers, or perhaps wants, to carry reusable cup around at all times. Instead, a network of over 100 businesses have agreed to a system whereby scheme members receive their beverage in a reusable cup, which can then be returned to a participating shop once empty. The shops then wash the cups, ready for their next use. The cost of the scheme is a negligible €1 per member, and is regarded as being very successful.
Second, where the plastic bag charge works, and the proposed latte levy may not, is that using a cup – disposable or otherwise – is an intrinsic part of grabbing a quick coffee. In other words, the need for the cup is unavoidable. The same is not necessarily true of plastic bags when out shopping; one can buy multiple items and get away without needing a bag. Indeed, ‘beating the system’ and dodging the small levy is something much more readily available to the would-be plastic bag buyer than the coffee cup consumer.
Therefore, one could conclude that whilst the latte levy may bring down some of the current levels of waste seen around disposable coffee cups, more thought might be needed to get a handle on the problem. On this point, two areas of concern need to be looked at.
First, there is the issue of recycling. Due to manufacturing methods, the vast majority of coffee cups are not recycled. In the whole of Britain, only three specialist recycling centres exist which can process coffee cups – which explains why less than 1% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used per year in the UK get recycled. However, there are companies which have developed cups which are more easy to recycle, and major coffee chains are apparently in talks with them to adopt the more environmentally friendly packaging. It is overwhelmingly likely that making disposable cups more easily recyclable will be crucial in cracking down on the remaining instances of non-reusable coffee cup use.
Second, recyclable or not, disposable coffee cups contribute greatly to total littering in the UK. This is a point which the Environmental Audit Committee raised itself in its report. The Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey MP, made clear that the UK needs to improve its on-street ‘binfrastructure’, simply to give people the opportunity to dispose of their coffee cups more appropriately. At the moment, less than half of all councils provide on-the-go recycling bins, which doubtlessly explains why half a million coffee cups end up as litter on the ground every day in the UK.
The Government has an ambition to crack down on waste, and as part of that has disposable coffee cups firmly within its crosshairs. If it does adopt the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee to introduce a latte levy – a measure which Gove has described, incidentally, as “exciting” – it is imaginable that coffee cup waste will fall: due to reduced effective demand, and consumers switching to reusable cups.
Yet, to think that success seen with the plastic bag charge will similarly be realised as the result of a latte levy may be premature. More work on developing recyclable cups, and providing more bins for people to dispose of their cups in, may also be required if the Government is to confront Britain’s coffee cup conundrum.
Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue