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Bristol pioneering charge on single-use coffee cups

Cafes located in buildings run by Bristol City Council will soon be placing a charge on disposable coffee cups to try and promote reusable cups and mugs among customers.

In what is thought to be the first measure of its kind among British local authorities, the city’s full council on Tuesday (12 December) voted to pass a motion brought by Councillor Clare Campion-Smith, a member of the Liberal Democrats, who have previously called for a nationwide charge to curb waste of the cups.

Bristol pioneering charge on single-use coffee cups
Speaking at the council, Campion-Smith praised the impact that David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, produced in Bristol’s BBC Natural History studios, has had on public awareness of the effects of litter on marine environments, and said that a charge could go a short way to addressing the problem.

Around seven million single-use paper takeaway cups are thought to be used in the UK every day, but because of their plastic coating and the lack of specialist collections and reprocessors just 0.25 per cent of them get recycled.

Research conducted by Cardiff University last year found that, across a selection of trial university and business cafes, adding a charge for disposable cups increased the use of reusable cups by 3.4 per cent. Simple steps like these charges and environmental messaging, it said, could reduce the use of disposable coffee cups by 50 to 300 million per year.

Professor of Environmental Psychology Wouter Poortinga, who conducted the study, commented: “There is an important nuance when it comes to financial incentives. People are far more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions - so if we really want to change a customer’s behaviour, then a charge on a disposable cup is more likely to be effective.”

Councillor Campion-Smith said: “We are very aware of the problems, but life is rushed, there are so many things to think about we sometimes forget, therefore I believe a small charge is necessary.”

The motion received cross-party support and was passed by 60 votes to one with one abstention.

It has yet to be confirmed when the charge will come into practice and how the proceeds from the charge will be used.

Labour councillor Kyle Daniel Dudd said that the charge would have to be included in contracts for new operators, which would not be able to be done straight away, but that it would be made a lot easier by bringing cafe services back in-house.

Green councillor Martin Fodor added that the vote showed that “local government can achieve things when central government isn’t working fast enough”.

Bristol pioneering charge on single-use coffee cups
Councillor Clare Campion-Smith
A similar charge, nicknamed the ‘Latte Levy’, is currently being considered in Ireland. The proposed Irish levy would raise the price of a coffee by around 10 to 15 Euro cents (9 to 13 pence), working in a similar way to the plastic bag charge introduced in Ireland in 2002, nine years ahead of Wales and thirteen ahead of England.

However, the British government has several times ruled out the idea of implementing a charge, preferring a voluntary approach for coffee chains to bring about positive change.

Following the rise of coffee cup recyclability into the public consciousness, sparked by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Hugh’s War on Waste documentary, a number of high street chains and recyclers launched ‘The Paper Cup Manifesto’, an industry-wide initiative with the objective of significantly increasing paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020.

As part of the work around this, paper and packaging recycler DS Smith last week announced that it would be starting a trial in the new year to see how paper cups could be recycled in traditional paper mills. At present, single-use cups pose significant challenges to mainstream paper mills and recyclers, due to their plastic lining and having to deal with food waste contamination and coffee remnants.

Meanwhile, collection of the cups has also been approached by carton recycling organisation ACE UK, which has been funded by the coffee industry to launch new recycling collection points and kerbside facilities for the cups in 2018.  

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