Government again rules out coffee cup charge after Lib Dem pressure

The government has once again ruled out the possibility of imposing a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups handed out at high street retailers after calls by the Liberal Democrats.

In September the party suggested that the charge for single-use carrier bags, which saw their use fall by a reported 85 per cent within a year of its introduction in England, should be emulated for paper cups, 2.5 billion of which are thrown away each year in the UK, with a recycling rate of just 0.25 per cent.

A charge was implemented at the Lib Dem party conference in September and leader Tim Farron said: “Throwaway cups are a threat to wildlife and the environment and its high time the government stepped in to reduce the amount of waste created each year. I want to see a culture shift towards bringing your own cup for a refill, rather than buying cups which are often non-recyclable and then throwing them away.”

However, in a letter sent to Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder last month, Waste Minister Therese Coffey said that there was no need for a government-led charge as action is already underway within the industry to reduce waste.

Chains ‘taking their own action’

Coffee cups are hard to recycle due to their complex structure, which sees a plastic coating moulded to the paper cup before assembly to increase its ability to hold liquid. This layer cannot be removed through conventional recycling treatments, and so can only be recycled at specialist facilities, of which there are only two in the UK. Therefore, calls for action have focused both on developing a more recyclable coffee cup and, more immediately, reducing the use of the hard-to-recycle cups, by incentivising reusable ones, for example.

“Many major chains are taking their own action to incentivise environmentally friendly behaviour, for example, offering a discount on drinks if customers bring their own cup”, wrote Coffey.

Government again rules out coffee cup charge after Lib Dem pressure
Waste Minister Coffey has downplayed the need for government action on coffee cups
However, Starbucks is currently the only major chain to offer a discount for those with reusable cups (25p). When the issue of coffee cup waste was highlighted publically for the first time early this year by celebrity chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the chain did trial an increased discount of 50p, however this has now ended.

It was at this point that then-Resources Minister Rory Stewart said in the House of Commons that “having tackled plastic bags, which I hope everybody in the house would agree the plastic bag [charge] has been a success, coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next”. However, those comments were swiftly followed by a statement from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) saying that “while the minister acknowledged more needs to be done to recycle coffee cups, there are no plans to tax them”.

In her letter to Bearder, Stewart’s successor Coffey also highlighted the extended producer responsibility obligations taken on by the larger coffee chains (those putting more than 50 tonnes of packaging materials on the market every year and with an annual turnover of more than £2 million). Through these, she said, the companies must pick up a financial obligation to recycling their packaging waste, including cups.

However, while these obligations, enforced under the Packaging Waste Regulations, present a financial impact on the chains to cover the cost of their waste, it has not yielded an increase in the recycling of cups in particular.

There was an industry-wide development this summer in the form of the ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’, an initiative led by the Foodservice Packaging Associations and Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group that has seen 45 retailers and suppliers, including Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Costa and Pret a Manger, pledge to increase recycling rates ‘significantly’ by 2020.    

The voluntary commitment, funded by its members, aims to deliver systematic change in a variety of issues, including: litter, partnerships, recycling infrastructure, communications and engagement, product sustainability and engagement. 

Fearnley-Whittingstall accuses chains of ‘greenwashing’

While Coffey suggests that these schemes are enough to address the coffee cup issue, Fearnley-Whittingstall said that all the responses to his campaign from the large companies, including a trial of cup-only bins on Manchester streets to improve their separate collection, merely amounted to “greenwash corporate responses”.

Appearing on the BBC’s The One Show, he said: “The corporate response to these things where people start to say this isn’t good enough and the public says we want change, is they do a trial.”

He continued to suggest that these trials are delaying tactics, allowing companies to put off further action for years at a time, and added that until a chain started using a "properly recyclable" cup, he wouldn't believe they were actually trying to change.

However, the British Coffee Association, which represents the whole supply chain of the coffee industry, says that these trials are important for understanding the issues better and that a charge similar to that for carrier bags would not address the real problems caused by cups.

Chris Stemman, Executive Director of the association, said: “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. We are working with our members and with the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group to look at important initiatives, such as Hubbub’s current #1MoreShot scheme in Manchester, which will help us to understand what will influence consumers to reduce cup use and recycle more widely.”

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