EAC says government ‘lacks ambition’ on coffee cup waste
The government has offered “warm words” but “no real action” today (9 March) in response to the report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on disposable coffee cup waste, according to the committee’s Chair Mary Creagh.
The report, released in January, was one of two to result from the EAC’s inquiry into the effects of disposable drinks packaging, with the other report focusing on plastic bottle waste. The key recommendation to stem from the coffee cup report was for a 25 pence charge to be added to all drinks sold in a single-use cup, in order to encourage the uptake of reusable alternatives and curb the 30,000 tonnes of coffee cup waste produced every year - of which only 0.25 per cent are currently recycled, due both to a lack of on-the-go recycling infrastructure and to their mixed paper and plastic composition.
In its response, the government was quick to reiterate that its upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy will set out its plans in full for reducing waste, mitigating environmental damage, promoting markets for secondary materials and incentivising the use of recyclable materials in product design.
However, the EAC has criticised this response as betraying a lack of commitment from the government, with Creagh commenting: “The UK’s throwaway culture is having a devastating impact on our streets, beaches and seas. Our report recommended practical solutions to the disposable packaging crisis. The government’s response shows that despite warm words they plan no real action.”
In response to the committee’s 25 pence ‘latte levy’ proposals, the government has reiterated its support for voluntary commitments from retailers, referencing the discounts offered by some chains like Pret a Manger for customers with reusable cups.
Calling for government to “repeat the success of the five pence plastic bag charge”, which saw take-up of single-use plastic bags drop by 85 per cent in the first year, Creagh countered: “Evidence to our inquiry demonstrated that charges work better than discounts for reducing the use of non-recyclable materials… By choosing to favour voluntary discounts for reusable cups, the government is ignoring the evidence about what works.
The EAC report also suggested a specific target for coffee cup recycling be introduced, with all cups disposed of in recycling bins to be recycled by 2023 - and called for a blanket ban on the item should this goal not be reached. In its response, the government rejects this goal, stating that ‘targets should be challenging, but realistic’ and that a 100 per cent recycling rate is ‘unobtainable as there will always be contamination in the waste stream.’
Paper Cup Manifesto, an industry-led voluntary initiative aiming to significantly increase recycling and recovery rates, though without setting a specific target. This was a disappointment to Creagh, who has challenged the government to produce a target “specifically for coffee cups in the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, to significantly improve the recycling rate up from the current 0.25 per cent.”
Producer responsibility reform
Another key outcome of the EAC inquiry was the recommendation to reform the UK’s producer responsibility system, which Lee Marshall of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee said “failed the Ronseal test” at an EAC hearing. The amount that UK producers pay towards the collection and recycling of their products, through purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) from companies that recycle the waste or export it overseas, is only around 10 per cent of the cost, while elsewhere in Europe that figure is much higher.
The EAC has also expressed concerns about a lack of transparency over how revenue from PRNs is spent, as well as how exported waste is classed as ‘recycled’ regardless of how it is treated in destination countries. “There is significant concern that PRNs are distorting the market in favour of exports rather than reprocessing in the UK”, Creagh noted.
The committee has called for a new system which would raise the cost for producers on cups that are hard to recycle, incentivising the use of more easily recycled materials, with revenue being funnelled back into UK infrastructure.
In response, the government states repeatedly that it acknowledges the shortfalls of the current system, pointing out that the Clean Growth Strategy of October 2017 contains a commitment to review the scheme across a number of areas.
However, action has been promised on this topic for some time, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announcing in November a call for evidence on how fiscal measures might help to reduce plastic waste; in February Creagh wrote a letter to Hammond questioning why this call for evidence has not yet been launched, with the government saying only that it will be published ‘soon’.
“Coffee cups are the perfect example of how the UK’s producer responsibility system has led to poor packaging recycling,” Creagh commented. “The government needs to push businesses to develop more sustainable packaging, or face higher fees.”
As a result, the EAC also announced today that it has asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to review the effectiveness of the PRN system, whether the government has a good oversight of its performance against its objectives, and to inquire into the government's approach to preventing fraud and non-compliance by producers.
A further point in the report was the need for improved labelling on coffee cups to make it clear to consumers if and where the item can be recycled. The report referenced the ubiquity of the Mobius Loop symbol, used to indicate that a product is capable of being recycled but not that it is recycled everywhere, stating that as a result many consumers are unaware that coffee cups cannot be placed in mixed or paper-specific recycling bins.
Both the EAC and the government wanted to encourage the work of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, a group of organisations across the paper cup supply chain working to develop collection and recycling infrastructure in the UK. However, while the EAC called for clearer information on cups about recycling, the government’s response focuses on anti-litter messaging, something Creagh said “completely misses the point.”
She continued: “Consumers deserve to know if their coffee cup will be recycled or not. The government’s response to my committee’s recommendation not only lacks ambition, but puts coffee in the ‘too difficult’ ministerial in-tray.”