Disposable coffee cups are made from cardboard, so we're practically doing the environment a favour by recycling them, right? That's the received wisdom – but it couldn't be much further from the truth and MPs are now calling for a 25p charge every time we use them.
The vast majority of the cups we're given at major coffee chains don't actually end up being recycled because their plastic lining makes it expensive to do so. Technically, they are recyclable, but there are just three facilities in the UK that can split the paper and plastic to be recycled, the BBC reported.
According to a new report by the Environmental Audit Committee, 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year in the UK but just 0.25% – less than 1 in 400 – are recycled, and a further half a million are littered each day. But that's not even the worst of it – every time we throw a disposable cup into the paper recycling, we're contaminating the whole batch, which means the lot could end up being sent to landfill.
So it's no wonder that MPs want a so-called "latte levy" to be added to the cost of our takeaway hot drinks and a complete ban from 2023 unless recycling improves. If the committee has its way, the money will go towards the UK's recycling and reprocessing facilities.
"Coffee cup producers and distributors have not taken action to rectify this and government has sat on its hands," said Mary Creagh MP, who chairs the committee. "The UK's coffee shop market is expanding rapidly, so we need to kick start a revolution in recycling."
Paper cup manufacturers have unsurprisingly opposed the move, claiming that they're the most sustainable option for hot drinks on the move, and that the 25p tax will hit consumers where it hurts: their pockets.
But Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, said it believes businesses should be made to absorb the tax, rather than customers. He said: "We are clear that this is something that must be addressed by industry, and that any associated costs should not be passed onto consumers," the BBC reported.
The latte levy is being compared to the charge on plastic bags, which resulted in a huge reduction in usage when it came into force in the UK in 2015. The MPs believe consumers' behaviour is more likely to be influenced by sticks than carrots.
Discounts for reusable cups
Some coffee chains do offer discounts to customers who bring their own cups but, as the report points out, very few shoppers – just 1 to 2% – are currently taking advantage of the offer. Arguably this could be because the discounts in most shops are mostly meagre – just 25p in Starbucks and Costa, 10p at bakery chain Paul and extra reward stamps at Caffe Nero.
Pret, which had also been offering 25p off, went a step further this week by doubling its discount for environmentally conscious shoppers buying hot drinks to 50p. This means a filter coffee from the chain, which was already a steal at under £1, would cost just 49p.
Last month, Pret's CEO Clive Schlee tweeted asking customers how the company could encourage more people to use reusable cups and the new discount was introduced as a result. Pret also said it will source a "well-designed reusable cup" to be launched later in the year.
"Not widely recycled" labelling
People are increasingly waking up and smelling the coffee cup problem, but MPs also want to raise awareness further by more clearly labelling cups as "not widely recyclable" or "recyclable in store only" (at joints with recycling systems in store).
The public is increasingly awake to the scourge of plastic pollution more generally: Blue Planet II highlighted the devastation caused by ocean pollution and the world was aghast when a lobster was found with a Pepsi logo "tattooed" on its claw. And thank god, because at current rates of pollution there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It really is time to act.
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