Disposable Coffee Cups | The Full Picture

Disposable Coffee Cups

So disposable coffee cups annoy just about everybody, not just Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. As a nation we use 7 million disposable coffee cups EVERY day – that is 2.5 billion a year. That is just plain crazy and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the impact that is going to have on the environment. And don’t get us started about the lids, the stirrers and those gargantuan plastic smoothie cups!

So MPs have called for a 25p levy on each and every disposable cup! Seems like a sensible solution but is it?

Remember, this a problem we have created ourselves, and it is unique to the 21st century. Our appetite for ‘coffee on the go’ has grown from nowhere with our town centres rammed with coffee shops, and vending machines prized into any small retail space that will have them.

But it is time to take a ‘bigger picture’ look at the problem. It’s no good just slapping a levy onto the product, and hoping for the best. It’s about communication, it’s about access to things that will solve the problem, and it’s about the stakeholders in the industry really stepping up to the plate to do their bit – not just a token effort of a re-usable cup range or a small discount for their use!

So the first strategy has to be to reduce their use. Obviously this is where MPs are going in suggesting this 25p ‘latte levy’! The carrier bag tax introduced in 2015 has been an undeniable success with a reduction in their use of 85%, but consumer psyche and behaviour is key here. The bag tax is successful because people are asked at the point of purchase whether they want to pay 5p for a carrier bag – it is an option – they decide actively yes or  no. With a 25p levy it would just be included in the price, denying people that opportunity in the same way.

The carrier bag charge has also inevitably encouraged the habit of bringing your own bags – most of us have a boot full of the things, and a few little fold away ones in our hand bags. But I bet more women have them in their hand bag than men, because we have hand bags and men, generally don’t! Re-usable coffee cups are just not that easy to keep about one’s person. It requires planning and storage which many of us lack. That said there are some lovely re-usable coffee cups on the market now, but it’s trying to get people to get into the habit of using them that is the real issue!

The second strategy of course, has to be to recycle those that are used. Despite what a lot of headlines say, and despite their plastic linings, you can in fact recycle disposable coffee cups.  The challenge is getting those coffee cups to the places that recycle them which are relatively few.

The added benefit of making this little bit of effort is that the companies that do recycle them,  turn those coffee cups into other products, some of which then reduce the need for single use plastic in other areas – for instance, plastic inserts in packaging – almost a win win.

But gathering the cups is the biggest issue! I am lucky enough to live in a part of the country where we can rinse our disposable coffee cups and put them in our recycling – but that is quite unusual.  People tend to think they can’t be recycled and throw them into normal waste, and in fact, it is very hard to get them to a recycling point.  But the evidence is there to suggest that if recycling points are available, people will happily use them – trials have been carried out in London to great effect. So that has to be the goal for those that are used.

Perhaps these gargantuan coffee shop chains should be forced to fund ‘recycling points’ in town centres and at their points of sale! That would seem the obvious course to us!

And doesn’t it have to be down to the commercial beneficiaries of this situation! Some high street chains offer discounts for re-using cups, but that is nowhere near enough with less than 2% of customers taking advantage of the offer.

Whatever the MPs say, it is time to call the giants of the industry to account for this issue, which was created by them in the first place!  Take away coffee shops are a 21st century phenomenon, and a very profitable business – surely they have a responsibility to solve the problem.

Of course coffee cup makers benefit too, but they didn’t create the market in the first place, and they have to be a business that need to evolve if they want to survive in any case!

We’d love hear your views!