The UK’s Latte Levy and the Global Coffee Cup Crisis
By John Bostwick, Head of Content Management, Radius
It’s no wonder, then, that Spain stood in contrast to the US as far as the number of to-go cups my family used and saw on our recent trip. But Europe isn’t immune to the charms of single-use cups. According to a 2017 Seas at Risk report, the 28 EU countries together consume 16 billion disposable coffee cups per year.
16 billion across 28 countries is a far cry from the US’s clip of 60 billion, but even so many consider the EU’s single-use coffee cup consumption a crisis, and some lawmakers are taking action. In 2016, the French government committed to banning non-compostable disposable cups and plates by 2020. This past December, the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee released a report called Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups.
The parliamentary report notes that the UK throws away 2.5 billion coffee cups each year, “enough to stretch around the world roughly five and a half times.” (In case you’re wondering, based on that number the coffee cups Americans discard annually would stretch around the world 132 times.) While disposable coffee cups can in fact be recycled, it’s a complex process, and only three UK recycling facilities are capable of removing their plastic linings. The report estimates that only 1 in 400 disposable coffee cups is recycled in the UK.
The report says there “is no excuse for the reluctance we have seen from government and industry to address coffee cup waste.” It recommends setting a target date of 2023 for the UK to recycle all its single-use coffee cups, and “if this target is not achieved, the government should ban disposable coffee cups.”
Critically for UK coffee retailers and consumers, the report recommends a 25p (about 33-cent) levy on disposable coffee cups. This stands in contrast to discounts offered by some coffee retailers to customers who bring in their own cups. Evidence suggests that levies are more effective than discounts at changing consumer behavior.
In order to address plastic litter in the oceans, the European Commission has proposed new EU-wide rules to reduce or ban certain single-use plastic products, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear. Plastics, the report says, make up about 85 percent of the world’s ocean litter, and the single-use plastics and fishing gear the EC is targeting make up 70 percent of that number.
Among the targeted items are disposable cups. Under the proposals, EU member states would be required to reduce the use of disposable cups “by setting national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale, or ensuring that single-use plastic products cannot be provided free of charge.”
The EC is positioning the rules as economic opportunities rather than bureaucratic roadblocks. The Commission says the clear, single set of rules will give EU-based companies “a competitive edge … [creating] a springboard for European companies to develop economies of scale and be more competitive in the booming global marketplace for sustainable products. By setting up re-use systems (such as deposit refund schemes), companies can ensure a stable supply of high quality material. In other cases, the incentive to look for more sustainable solutions can give companies the technological lead over global competitors.”
If there are any readers out there who doubt that many significant multinationals are in fact craving sustainable solutions to disposable plastics, consider a recent initiative from Starbucks, whose 1987 decision to use plastic-lined paper cups over foam ones was central to creating the current global predicament. In March, the company committed $10 million to launch the NextGen Cup Challenge, which seeks to develop a more sustainable cup. A Starbucks spokeswoman notes of the challenge, “Developing a plant-based liner that stands up to hot liquids and is commercially viable is incredibly hard.”
That last statement is pretty much self-evident but still needs to be made. Given the countless technological advances of the last two decades, and the environmental and financial stakes involved — Starbucks estimates that a total of 600 billion disposable cups are distributed globally each year — it’s almost incredible that someone in this area hasn’t built a better mousetrap.