MPs call for 25p charge on takeaway coffee cups ahead of possible ban

In UK 2.5bn disposable cups are thrown away each year, of which less than 0.25 per cent are recycled, according to environmental audit committee report

MPs are calling for a 25p charge on takeaway coffee in a move that could see disposable cups banned in five years time, reports The Guardian.

In the UK 2.5bn takeaway coffee cups are used and thrown away each year – enough to stretch around the world five-and-a-half-times. The UK produces 30,000 tonnes of coffee cup waste each year, according to a report published by MPs on the environmental audit committee on Friday.

Disposable cups cannot be recycled by the normal systems because they are made from cardboard with a tightly bonded polyethylene liner, which is difficult to remove, and means they are not accepted by paper mills.

As a result just one in 400 cups are recycled – less than 0.25 per cent. Half a million coffee cups are littered each day in the UK, the report said.

MPs are calling for:

  • a 25p levy on coffee bought in takeaway cups to be used to reduce the number of cups thrown away and invest in reprocessing facilities
  • the introduction of a ban on throwaway coffee cups if a target that all takeaway cups are recyclable by 2023 is not met
  • coffee chains to pay more towards disposing of cups
  • improved labelling to better educate consumers

Labour MP Mary Creagh, chair of the committee said: “Coffee cup producers and distributors have not taken action to rectify this and the government has sat on its hands.”

Only two of the major coffee chains gave evidence to MPs inquiry, while others refused to engage.

“Their silence speaks volumes,” MPs said.

“There is no excuse for the ongoing reluctance from government and industry to address coffee cup waste,” the report said. “Disposable coffee cups are an avoidable waste problem and if the UK cannot be confident of their future sustainability, the government should ban them.”

Some coffee shop chains – Starbucks and Costa – had shown initiative in introducing on-site recycling bins for cups, which they then sent to one of three specialist recycling facilities. These were “well meaning”, MPs said, but not enough to tackle the scale of cup waste in the UK. Other efforts were “inconsistent and need targets” to be imposed by the government.

Instead coffee chains perpetuated customer confusion that cups are widely recyclable when they are not.

The Local Government Association said more waste could end up in landfill if coffee cups were put into normal collection systems because they contaminated other paper waste

MPs said: “It is unacceptable that coffee sellers are perpetuating customer confusion though their use of recycling labels and emphasis on the recyclability of coffee cups, despite the shockingly low recycling rate,” the report said. “Those without in-store recycling should print their cups with a not widely recyclable label.”

Although some coffee shops provide discounts for customers who bring their own cup, uptake of these offers is low at only 1-2 per cent of coffee purchases. The committee said the impact on consumer behaviour of the plastic bag charge – which reduced bag usage by more than 83 per cent in the first year – showed consumers are more responsive to a charge than a discount.

The charge could lead to a reduction in the use of disposable cups of between 50-300m per year, according to evidence submitted to MPs.

The committee last month recommended the government introduce a plastic bottle deposit scheme to cut plastic waste and leakage into the oceans.

Richard Burnett, from James Cropper, one of only three companies that recycles coffee cups, supported the 25p charge if the money is used to support the infrastructure to recycle them. “Anything that would help facilitate the recycling of these cups is a good thing,” he said.

Cropper takes cups collected by coffee retailers instore recycling bins, removes the plastic and turns them into luxury paper and packaging products. But Burnett said there was a key link missing in the chain: transporting the cups from the retailers to the recycling facilities. If a charge helped to pay for infrastructure around this, he added, it could increase the volume of cups recycled.

Just five retailers have taken up Cropper’s cup recycling initiative and the firm has recycled just 10m cups following a target of 500 million a year.

Starbucks said on Friday it would trial a 5p charge on takeaway coffee cups for three months in about 20 London cafes. The chain said its efforts to persuade customers to buy reusable cups had led to a 1.8% uptake. A spokesman said the money raised would be donated to a charity to run a study on how to change the public’s behaviour and encourage the use of reusable cups.

Dr Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society welcomed the recommendations. “A ‘latte levy’ of 25p will remind people that their normal coffee cup is typically lined with plastic making it hard to recycle, with more than 99 per cent of them destined for landfill or incineration.

“Only by treating this issue as one that is the responsibility of both industry and consumers will re-use become the norm.”