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Industry groups respond as government minister rejects coffee cup charge

Industry groups representing the waste and recycling sector, as well as those in coffee and food packaging, have both criticised and commended Waste Minister Therese Coffey’s rejection of a proposal brought forward by the Liberal Democrats to bring in a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups to reduce waste.

Industry groups respond as government minister rejects coffee cup charge

In a letter to Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder last month, Coffey rejected the call for the government to introduce a charge on single-use coffee cups, despite the fact around 2.5 billion of the hard-to-recycle cups being thrown away every year, claiming that the coffee industry was already dealing with issues of recyclability.

Focus on recycling disposable cups ‘deflects from the real solution’

In response to this announcement, Chris Sherrington, Principal Consultant at independent environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting, said that the only way to reduce waste regarding the disposal of single-use coffee cups is to charge their usage and encourage the use of reusable cups to reduce the coffee industry’s impact on the environment.

Sherrington, an environmental economist focussing on the development of a circular economy and author of several high profile reports on waste and recycling policy, has urged Coffey to renege on her stance of non-interference by the government in tackling the problem of the disposal of single-use coffee cups.

He said: “Increasing single-use cup recycling rates is of course a positive step, but the focus on this deflects from the real solution to this problem – we should be incentivising consumers enjoying coffees ‘on the go’ to take re-usable cups.

“Evidence collated in reports Eunomia has completed for Zero Waste Scotland and the Campaign to Protect Rural England show that when a value is attached to a single-use item consumers attitudes change. The best example of this recently is the reduction in plastic bag use since the supermarket plastic bag charge came in.

“British businesses are required to implement the waste hierarchy, a system which ranks waste management option according to what is best for the environment. Preventing waste in the first place, by, for example, using a reusable cup is at the top of the hierarchy, while recycling is half way down the list.”

Sherrington went on to state that, especially at a local level, a charge would save small businesses “money, prevent waste, reduce the amount of litter in the neighbourhood, and raise funds for good causes”, while he was also “rather hoping that this kind of targeted financial incentive might be one of the headline measures when the much-anticipated litter strategy is announced”, instead of its rejection.

Industry working to address issue

The reaction from the coffee and food packaging industries to Coffey’s announcement has been rather more supportive.

Martin Kersh, Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, has made clear the packaging industry’s stance on the matter, highlighting the work that the industry is doing to combat waste.

He said: “This is a good call from the Minister and shows she is listening to the industry, which has responded to the call for increased recovery and recycling of cups by coming together and pledging to make a significant difference by 2020. We are making good progress and there is a lot happening both in terms of research and action.

“The industry is working on improving recovery and recycling along the supply chain but it’s a complex scenario, not least because the UK waste management infrastructure has changed little in recent decades and has not moved with the needs of society. We live in a 24/7 culture that is time poor and by necessity driven by convenience. We are working hard to find solutions but safe, economically viable and sustainable answers won’t be found overnight.” 

The British Coffee Association also came out earlier in the week in defence of industry efforts to increase recycling and criticism of the proposed cup charge with Executive Director Chris Stemman saying: “We recognise the success of the 5p plastic bag charge in relation to the challenge associated with managing plastic bags. However, the use of paper cups and plastic bags are inherently different and simply introducing a 5p tax on cups will not necessarily address the behaviour change required to reduce waste and littering or provide the infrastructure required to sustainably recover and enable the recycling of paper cups”.

Debate continues

The debate surrounding single-use coffee cups and their wastage has continued for most of the year since celebrity chef and waste campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall brought it to the public’s attention with his BBC series Hugh’s War on Waste.

Fearnley-Whittingstall recently appeared on BBC One’s The One Show and criticised industry initiatives such as Hubbub’s #1MoreShot campaign which aims to collect 20,000 cups in Manchester city centre and use them to create a variety of products, calling them a “greenwash corporate response”. He said that big companies needed to make more of an effort to create “properly recyclable coffee cup[s]”.

The main problem with disposing of single-use cups is their complex structure, which sees a thin layer of plastic bonded to the paper cup to make them waterproof. These materials can only be separated during the recycling process using specialist technology at dedicated plants of which there are only two in the UK, recycling less than 0.25% of all disposable cups used in the UK annually.

While Starbucks does offer a 25p discount for customers that bring a reusable cup to one of their coffee shops, and this summer industry leaders signed the ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’ to ‘significantly’ increase recycling by 2020, industry response has been limited.

However, companies such as Nextek, which is working with Hubbub’s OneMoreShot campaign to use collected cups to create a resin to create new plastic products, and Frugalpac, which has designed a new cup with only a thin plastic layer which can be recycled in the paper stream, are proposing alternative solutions.

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