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Prevention measures could reduce coffee cup waste by 300m per year, says study

Simple steps like charges and environmental messaging could reduce the use of disposable coffee cups by 50 to 300 million per year, according to new research aimed at finding ways of reducing coffee cup waste.

Industry groups respond as government minister rejects coffee cup charge
The issue of coffee cup waste was brought into the spotlight by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as part of Hugh’s War on Waste, and the Environmental Audit Committee announcing an inquiry into the matter. Several recent initiatives have trialled ways of recycling single use coffee cups, but this study is looking further up the waste hierarchy, focusing on reducing waste generation through reusable cups.

The research, commissioned by coffee manufacturer Bewley’s and conducted by Cardiff University between September and December 2016, tested a series of measures to increase the use of reusable cups. The study was conducted across 12 business and university café sites.

Measures included charges for disposable cups, environmental messaging in cafés, offering reusable cups and distributing free reusable cups.

The research found that adding a charge for disposable cups increased the use of reusable cups by 3.4 per cent and distributing free reusable cups increased use by 4.3 per cent. Environmental messaging and simply making reusable cups available increased use by 2.3 and 2.5 per cent respectively.

However, by combining the measures, the study found that the use of reusable cups increased much more significantly, going from 5.1 per cent to 17.4 per cent in one café.

Combining measures most effective approach

Cardiff University’s Professor Poortinga, author of the study, said: “Our results show that, on average, the use of reusable coffee cups could be increased by up to 12.5 per cent with a combination of measures. With this in mind, the UK’s usage of an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups each year could be cut by up to 300 million coffee cups”.

Poortinga was also involved with a project evaluating the introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The introduction of the carrier bag charge saw their use fall by a reported 85 per cent in England within 12 months.

Notably, although a charge on the use of disposable cups encouraged an increase in the use of reusable cups, offering a discount for using reusable cups had no impact. Currently, Starbucks is the only major coffee chain to offer a discount for reusable cups.

Poortinga continued: “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.”

Difficult to recycle

Approximately 2.5 billion paper cups are thrown away each year in the UK, with a recycling rate of just 0.25 per cent.

Coffee cups are notoriously difficult to recycle, due to their complex structure combining paper with a plastic coating, meaning only specialist facilities can recycle them. There are currently only two such facilities in the UK, with a processing capacity far below the number of cups thrown away. In addition, contamination issues can arise with the cups, with some fearing increased recycling could lead to contamination of the rest of the paper-recycling stream.                                                                                                     

Last summer, an initiative known as the ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’ led by the Foodservice Packaging Associations and Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group saw 45 retailers and suppliers, including Starbucks, Caffè Nero, Costa and Pret a Manger, pledging to increase recycling rates ‘significantly’ by 2020.

In October last year, Waste Minister Therese Coffey ruled out the possibility of imposing a charge on disposable cups, despite calls from the Liberal Democrats to introduce one, stating that there was no need for a government-led charge as action is already underway within the industry to reduce waste.

Commenting on the Cardiff University study, Chris Stemman, Executive Director of the British Coffee Association, voice of the UK coffee industry, said: “Holistic and in-depth research, such as this new study, is vital so that as an industry we invest in the right technologies that will enable us to enhance the recyclability of coffee cups and better understand what will influence consumers to recycle more widely. Our focus is to create long term sustainability and a circular economy with-in the coffee industry. We believe that developing new packaging materials and enhancing recycling processes and infrastructures will have a significantly greater and longer-term impact compared with other proposed measures such as charging or taxing disposable cups.”

Announcing the results of the study, Louise Whitaker of Bewley’s said: “As a company we are committed to working with our cup providers and customers to provide a solution to the problem. The research is a really useful step forward in knowing how best to steer people towards bringing their own cups.”

Findings of the research will be submitted to the government’s inquiry into coffee cup waste. 

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