‘Latte levy’ could see Ireland charging for disposable coffee cups

As the UK ponders options to deal with the amount of disposable packaging waste being created and littered, the Republic of Ireland is considering the introduction of a so-called ‘latte levy’ which would increase the price of takeaway coffees sold in disposable cups, in order to encourage the use of reusable alternatives.

Few facilities have the capability to recycle coffee cups, which are commonly made of a plastic-coated cardboard and so do not belong in traditional paper streams. Moreover, most single-use cups are purchased and used on the go, in places where access to appropriate recycling bins is scarce. This has resulted in vast numbers being sent to landfill: two million every day in Ireland, according to Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten, while in the UK an estimated seven million are used and disposed of every day.

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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.

Uptake of single-use carrier bags in Ireland fell by a reported 94 per cent within the first year of the charge (around 80 per cent in England), and Naughten has suggested that a charge for coffee cups could produce similar results, encouraging consumers to start using reusable alternatives both to save money and to reduce environmental impact.

This news comes as the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has been discussing solutions to the same problem in the UK. Its inquiry into the problem of disposable drinks packaging has seen the committee talk to industry leaders, local authority figures and members of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

In 2016, Defra ruled out introducing a charge on disposable cups, with Resources Minister Therese Coffey saying that legislation was unnecessary as “most major chains are taking their own action to incentivise environmentally friendly behaviour”. However, no retailers have yet implemented a charge themselves, and Starbucks and Pret a Manger are currently the only businesses offering specific incentives: a 25 pence discount for customers with a reusable cup.

Naughten said that the Irish government are looking to use a variety of methods to reduce coffee cup waste: “International research shows that combining financial incentives, reusable alternatives and better messaging around environmental impact of single-use coffee cups all have a direct impact on consumer behaviour”. Indeed, research commissioned by coffee manufacturer Bewley’s in 2016, and carried out by Cardiff University, suggested that using measures such as charges alongside stronger messages about, and greater access to, alternatives, could increase the use of reusable coffee cups by up to 12.5 per cent.

Researchers at Cardiff University tested various different incentives over a trial period, revealing that while an added charge increased the use of reusable cups, offering a discount for reusable cups in the manner of Starbucks and Pret had no impact.

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.”

Naughten continued: “Some of the areas that we will be looking at involve the potential for local authorities becoming part of a nationwide scheme where customers could sign up, for a small fee, in order to return their used reusable cup to participating cafes and bakeries and get their next coffee served in another reusable cup.”

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Alternatives to a charge have been trialled in England, with environmental campaigns charity Hubbub launching its ‘Square Mile Challenge’ in April this year and collecting over half a million cups in specially designed recycling bins. Costa have also begun providing collection bins in their UK stores. Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), suggested at an EAC panel that a deposit return scheme for disposable coffee cups might offer a potential solution, something that is being discussed more widely with regards to plastic bottles.

However, increased collection of disposable cups without discouraging their use could overwhelm the UK recycling system, which lacks the facilities to process them, something mentioned by EAC chair Mary Creagh at another recent panel.

Naughten is discussing the levy concept in conversation with Roseanna Cunningham, Scotland’s Environment Minister, who is also considering a charge on coffee cups. 

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