Starbucks to test coffee cup charge as industry responds to EAC report

On the same day that MPs have recommended a 25 pence charge be added to all drinks sold in a disposable paper cup in the UK, environmental campaign charity Hubbub has announced plans with Starbucks to put the suggestion to the test.

A report by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), released today (5 January), calls for a levy similar to the plastic bag charge to try and curb the UK’s addiction to single-use, hard to recycle coffee cups. According to the report, just 0.25 per cent of cups are recycled, and 500,000 are littered every day.

The partnership between Hubbub and Starbucks will see a five pence charge introduced in 20 to 25 central London stores from February in order to investigate the impact on customer behaviour. Reusable cups will be promoted alongside the charge, the revenue from which will go towards a ‘comprehensive behaviour change study’ run by Hubbub.

Starbucks to test coffee cup charge as industry responds to EAC report

Currently the second largest coffee shop chain in the UK, Starbucks has been offering a 25 pence discount to customers bringing reusable cups for the past few years, and in 2016 trialled a 50 pence discount after pressure from celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign, although this was not continued at the time. Costa and Pret a Manger have also been promoting their similar discounts on Twitter in response to today’s report.   

Hubbub’s history with coffee cup recycling includes its Square Mile Challenge in April 2017, which saw dedicated recycling stations around the City of London collect over half a million cups. The charity has also released seven steps it believes can help to boost the UK’s recycling rates, calling for more coherent, collaborative campaigns at national and local levels, better design for recyclability, as well as improvement to the country’s collection and processing infrastructure, something else highlighted in the EAC’s report.

Other environmental charities have responded positively, with Fiona Nicholls from Greenpeace UK commenting: “This is a big problem which is getting bigger all the time... We must not allow the packaging industry to water down these recommendations any further.”

Mike Childs, Head of Science at Friends of the Earth, suggested a deposit return scheme (DRS) might be more effective than a charge: “It would mean that there was an incentive to take a cup back to any coffee shop rather than chuck it in the bin, and it's companies that would rightly bear the burden."

The concept of a DRS has long been considered for plastic bottles (and was recommended in the EAC’s previous report from this inquiry) and Lee Marshall of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) suggested at a previous EAC hearing that a deposit scheme for cups might have potential, but the committee focused more on improving on-the-go recycling, with today’s report stating that ‘the nature of coffee cup waste does not lend itself to a deposit return scheme’.

Industry calls for integrated reform

Industry figures have called for any charge to come alongside a coherent plan of change across the supply chain, not just focusing on consumer behaviour.

David Palmer-Jones, CEO of Suez Recycling and Recovery, said: “Taxes on takeaway coffee cups may provide a helpful nudge to consumers to abandon a throw-away culture, but for lasting change, proposals like these need to be part of wider, joined-up reform that shifts the burden of responsibility for all forms of packaging content, recyclability and ultimately their collection, back to the producer.”

Starbucks to test coffee cup charge as industry responds to EAC report

As well as the headline grabbing ‘latte levy’, the EAC has recommended a target of every cup being recycled by 2023, as well as an overhaul of the UK’s producer responsibility system, which currently sees producers paying only 10 per cent of the cost for local authorities to collect and process packaging.

The report suggests that higher charges could be paid by those using hard to recycle materials, encouraging better design for recyclability and enabling investment in UK recycling systems.

The Resource Association praised the EAC for raising awareness of the issue of disposable packaging, with Chief Executive Ray Georgeson commenting: “It is recognised that there must be investment to improve the nation’s limited ‘on-the-go’ recycling collection infrastructure and to support the technology and capacity investments that are needed to ensure that materials collected are efficiently recycled with quality at the heart of the process.”

Also in agreement was Estelle Brachlianoff, Senior Executive Vice-President at environmental services provider Veolia UK & Ireland, who added: “We want to see incentives for manufacturers which use recycled materials to give products a second life.”

Martin Kersh, Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, said that with the industry willing to fund greater recycling, a charge isn’t necessary: “The recycling of paper cups is set to increase fast as the coffee cup industry and its customers have introduced a large-scale recycling facility. The key to increased recycling therefore is increased collection and this requires an on-the-go waste management infrastructure that addresses all packaging used in this way and not just cups.

“The public needs a simple, UK wide solution, one which is made possible by the introduction of an on-the-go waste management infrastructure. To fund this requires a reform of the UK Producer Responsibility (Packaging Recovery Note) mechanism… A 25p charge, which works out at over £20,000 per tonne, would most likely be considered as legally accounting for the producer responsibility obligation for disposable cups so effectively shifting the charge from the producer to the consumer.

“Business has made clear its willingness to provide greater funding to achieve more collection and recycling through the PRN system. Surely government should seize this opportunity and reform the system?”

Invest in binfrastructure

While the environmental impact of charging extra for disposable cups would seem to be clear, based on the drop in use of plastic bags, retailers may not be so happy. The British Coffee Association, which represents a number of producers and retailers including Caffe Nero and Costa, expressed support for the EAC’s drive towards using recyclable materials, but Executive Director Chris Stemman criticised the idea of a charge as putting “an unfair and additional cost on coffee drinking consumers only”.

He continued: “We urge the UK Government to ensure that if any potential tax is considered, that it is ring-fenced and used specifically to invest in new ‘binfrastructure’ and to improve recycling processes with local authorities that make it easier to separate and stream paper cups and other waste products.”

Suez’s Palmer-Jones agreed, commenting that a charge “should be used to fund the collection of cups, since once they are separately collected they have a value and can be made into new products.”

The full report into coffee cup waste can be read on the EAC’s website.

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