Starbucks trials disposable coffee cup charge

A five pence charge for disposable coffee cups will be trialled in 35 Starbucks stores across West London, the City and the West End.

The trial, in partnership with environmental behaviour change charity Hubbub, was announced in January, on the same day as Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee reported that only 0.25 per cent of cups used in the UK are recycled due to the difficulty of processing their bonded paper and plastic layers. In its report, the Committee recommended a 25 pence levy be added to all drinks sold in disposable cups.

Starbucks trials disposable coffee cup charge Starting yesterday (26 February), the Starbucks trial will see 35 stores apply the five pence 'latte levy' for the next three months. Initial plans were for the charge to be introduced in 20 to 25 stores, suggesting that enthusiasm for the project had grown in recent months. Starbucks claims that 48 per cent of participants in a recent survey commissioned by the coffee chain said they would carry a reusable cup.

Indeed, support for the use of reusable cups has grown exponentially in recent months, with Argos reporting an astounding 537 per cent increase in sales of the product compared to the same month last year, while many MPs are conspicuously sporting theirs around Westminster as they pledge to give up single-use plastic for Lent.

Though Environment Secretary Michael Gove appears to have personally joined the crusade against disposable cups, the government has so far been unwilling to commit to legislative action on the issue, preferring to support voluntary actions by retailers and individuals. One such initiative is 2016’s ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’, led by the Foodservice Packaging Associations and the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, which involves 45 retailers and suppliers - including Starbucks - pledging to provide clearer messaging to consumers about recyclability in order to ‘significantly increase paper cup recovery and recycling by 2020’, though the group has yet to define how it will be measuring and reporting its progress.

Bristol City Council has also taken the voluntary approach, becoming the first UK local authority to vote for a coffee cup charge in all council-run buildings, a measure which received cross-party support and was passed 60 to one. According to Green councillor Martin Fodor, this is an example of how “local government can achieve things when central government isn’t working fast enough.”

However, Gove recently announced he was exploring the possibility of banning plastic straws, and admitted on the BBC’s Today programme in January that the plastic bag charge shows “that people are already prepared to pay more in order to help the environment” - whether this attitude will translate to a national coffee cup charge, like that under consideration in Ireland, remains to be seen.

Starbucks trials disposable coffee cup charge
Only 0.25 per cent of coffee cups are recycled, according to the Environmental Audit Committee

Speaking about the Starbucks trial, Hubbub’s co-founder Gavin Ellis commented: “Our early conversations with customers have shown an increased awareness of the need to reduce waste from single-use cups. Previous studies have shown that adding a charge on single-use cups is more effective than money off a reusable cup. We’re excited to be working on this initiative with Starbucks to find out if this is the case on the high street and to discover what else will encourage people to use reusable cups.”

Starbucks already offers a 25 pence discount to customers using a reusable cup - and Pret a Manger recently upped its own discount to 50 pence - though research conducted by coffee manufacturer Bewley’s and Cardiff University in 2016 found that adding a charge to disposable cups was much more effective than a discount, while the most effective method by far involved combining a charge with the offer of free or low-cost reusable cups, along with improved communications; this could increase the use of reusable cups by up to 12.5 per cent.

Simon Redfern, Vice President of Communications for Starbucks Europe, admitted that the chain’s reusable cup discount has not been hugely popular: “We’ve offered a reusable cup discount for 20 years, with only 1.8 per cent of customers currently taking up this offer, so we’re really interested in working with Hubbub to see how this charge could help to change behaviour and help to reduce waste.”

The revenue from the trial will go to fund a customer behaviour study by Hubbub on the effects of the charge, as well as to support other waste-reduction schemes across London. Hubbub has a strong history of campaigning around coffee cup waste, with its Square Mile Challenge in 2017 collecting over half a million disposable cups in specially designed recycling bins placed across London’s Square Mile. 

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