Starbucks announces nationwide five pence coffee cup charge

Starbucks has announced that, following a three-month trial in London, it will be introducing a five pence paper cup charge across all 950 stores in Britain, effective from Thursday 26 July.

The new initiative will see customers charged an additional five pence for use of the cup when purchasing a hot beverage. Those using reusable cups have already received a 25 pence discount off any Starbucks drink for several years, with other coffee chains such as Pret A Manger and Costa offering similar deals.

Starbucks’ London trial, conducted in partnership with environmental campaign charity Hubbub, produced positive results, showing a 126 per cent increase in the use of reusable cups in participating outlets, measured by the number of customers redeeming the reusable 25 pence cup discount.

Hubbub compiled a report evaluating the overall impact of the charge on customer behaviour. It shows that the percentage of customers bringing in their own cup increased in the trial stores from 2.2 per cent before the trial to 5.8 per cent during the trial. The report also found that mornings see the greatest number of customers using reusable cups, with 8 per cent of all hot drinks served in reusable mugs.

The results indicate that enforcing the five pence charge across the UK, with supporting in-store communications and staff training, would have a positive impact on reducing disposable cup use.

In January this year, a report by MPs in Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee said that coffee shops should be made to charge 25 pence for the use of disposable cups, after it emerged that 99.75 per cent of the 2.5 billion cups disposed of annually in the UK are not recycled.

While the charge to be enforced by Starbucks is significantly smaller than that called for in January, the five pence cost is a bid to encourage customers to use a reusable cup through placing a value on the environmental impact of the product.

Starbucks has been widely sharing its current and planned environmental policies. Earlier this year, Starbucks committed $10 million (£7.5 million) to developing a fully recyclable and compostable hot cup in partnership with Closed Loop Partners. Currently, all drink-in customers are served with ceramic cups, and all UK stores offer paper cup recycling bins, though the final destination of the majority of used paper cups – which are very difficult to recycle due to the mixed-material composition of the items – is unclear.

The company has also announced plans to eliminate single-use plastic straws globally by 2020, including creating a new strawless lid – currently launched in 150 stores – as a standard on all iced coffee, tea and espresso beverages, while straws made from alternative-materials, such as paper, for Frappuccino-blended beverages or customers who prefer or need a straw will also be made available.  

Martin Brok, President of Starbucks Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: “We saw encouraging results from the first three months of this trial with Hubbub, and what stood out to us was the positive response we had from our partners (employees) and customers who continue to push us to innovate and find ways to reduce waste. Extending this to all our stores across Britain is an exciting step and we’re hoping this charge will remind customers to rethink their use of single-use plastic as it has with plastic bags.”

Trewin Restorick, CEO and founder of Hubbub, added: “Single-use plastics is an issue that has become more significant in people’s minds than ever before. The trial proved this, showing that customers have an increased awareness of the need to reduce waste from single-use cups. A 5p charge is an effective way to prompt this change. We’re excited to be working with Starbucks, particularly as they take on board the findings of the trial and introduce the charge across the whole of the UK. We look forward to discovering what more can be done to encourage people to use reusable cups.”

Moving on from disposable cups

The government’s initial response to the EAC’s coffee cup report in January stated that it prefers to support voluntary commitments by retailers over legislative action – there has been no legislative action taken since January – and numerous companies have since put policies in place targeting disposable cups.

Coffee chain Costa has also announced plans to recycle up to 500 million disposable coffee cups a year by 2020, subsidising waste collection companies Veolia, Biffa, Suez, Grundon and First Mile by £70 per tonne of takeaway cups collected, in order to provide an incentive for their collection for recycling.

Independent coffee shop chain Boston Tea Party, meanwhile, completely banned the use of disposable coffee cups in its 22 stores in June, with takeaway beverages only being sold in reusable cups. A cup loan scheme has also been developed, which allows customers to ‘rent’ a reusable cup for a deposit of £4.50, which can then be reclaimed when the cup is returned. Similarly, supermarket chain Waitrose has banned all disposable coffee cups from its stores.

Additionally, last month, the Scottish Parliament banned single-use coffee cups in its main buildings, claiming that 450,000 cups could be diverted from landfill every year as a result.

While the voluntary initiatives of some retailers are to be welcomed, the variation in the form that these initiatives take can pose some confusion. Chris Sherrington, Head of Environmental Policy and Economics at environmental consultancy Eunomia, states that it would be preferable for the government to take the lead on introducing these incentives, saying: "It will be interesting to see the results of Starbucks' nationwide rollout of the charge across its UK stores. Combined with its discount of 25 pence for those bringing their own cup, there is now a 30 pence price difference in favour of reusables – although theory suggests that presenting this all as a charge would lead to a greater shift in behaviour. However, from the consumer perspective, it adds a further potentially confusing variation to a diverse series of incentives offered by retailers for those bringing their own reusable coffee cup, with – as far as I'm aware – no similar charges or discounts being applied to single-use cups for soft drinks and smoothies.

"An across the board tax of 25 pence covering all takeaway cups used to serve hot and cold drinks would be much simpler for consumers and it would deliver a much greater shift to reusables than different retailers running their individual schemes that apply only to specific types of drink. Evidence also suggests a tax of something like 25 pence – as opposed to a discount of a similar price – would create a bigger shift in consumer behaviour. Behavioural research tells us that people work harder to avoid a loss, or an additional cost, than they will to seek the same level of gain, or discount.

"It's also worth thinking carefully about where the money goes. While the waste prevention effects of a tax or a charge would be the same, a tax would be preferable. A tax would avoid the risks – that could occur with a charge – that funds disbursed by retailers displace CSR spending, and lead to undue influence over recipients, who themselves might become overly dependent upon the proceeds of the charge, potentially limiting their support for greater ambition in respect of waste and litter prevention. Revenues from a tax could be used to offset other taxes, such as those on employment."

Disposing of the disposables

While efforts are being made to limit the use of single-use cups, recycling companies have been taking steps to tackle the issue of recycling the disposable coffee cups, a process made difficult by the mixture of cardboard with a plastic lining. In May this year, bespoke paper manufacturer James Cropper, announced a ‘CupCycling’ process, which enables the company to separate the plastic and paper and use the fibre to make luxury recycled products, while the plastic lining is processed at a separate facility.

In environments where disposable cups are still seen as the most convenient option, such as summer music festivals, there have been efforts to ensure that all cups are made of compostable materials; for example, all food and hot drinks served by traders at Latitude festival come in biodegradable packaging by BioPak, which is made from waste material from the sugarcane industry.

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