Should Britain introduce a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups?

The Liberal Democrats have stepped into the war on waste, calling for a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups to cut usage. But is this the best solution to the issue?

Storm in a coffee cup: The Lib Dems claim a 5p charge would drive a cultural shift, but Simply Cups says this isn't isn't in the interests of retailers or consumers

Storm in a coffee cup: The Lib Dems claim a 5p charge would drive a cultural shift, but Simply Cups says this isn't isn't in the interests of retailers or consumers

Building on the success of the Party’s push for the carrier bag charge last year - which has seen an 85% reduction in carrier bags handed out across the UK – Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron has this week suggested that a similar “culture shift” could happen with coffee cups.

Charging 5p to purchase a paper coffee cup would encourage thousands of customers to bring their own cups and – if as successful as the carrier bag tax – would lead to two billion fewer paper cups being sent to landfill each year, the Lib Dems claim.

Liberal Democrat Leader 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. Liberal Democrats brought in the plastic bag charge and it’s been proven highly successful – coffee cups are the next logical step.”

The Environment Spokesperson for the Party Kate Parminter added: “We’ve seen how dramatically a small charge has affected public behaviour when it comes to the plastic bags and its clearly time to extend it to coffee cups. Most people purchase a tea or coffee and throw away the cup without even thinking about it, but a charge would increase our awareness of the environmental impact.

"Protecting our environment has to be a priority of government, with more investment in recycling and a move towards generating less waste - the Conservative government has shown no desire to deliver this and has failed to build on the work we achieved in Government. This has to change.”

'Not necessary'

However, this idea has been denounced as “neither in the interest of retailers or consumers” by paper cup recycler Simply Cups, which suggests that existing cost efficient recycling solutions and VAT reduction incentives would pose as a superior alternative.

Simply Cups co-founder Peter Goodwin told edie: “We see the rational for a 5p levy but we do not think it is necessary since Simply Cups has already proven that it can recycle a cup for less than one penny in the pound. However, If the industry fails to collaborate, and support voluntary cup recycling, then the inevitable situation is that a tax will be imposed, which we believe is neither in the interests of retailers or consumers.

“The circular economy will only flourish if there are viable, commercially driven solutions… but we continually see far too much ‘stick’ and not enough ‘carrot’ being prescribed from policy makers. 

“Instead, we would prefer to see, for example, a reduction in VAT on products that contain a specified percentage of recycled post-consumer material or even a public sector procurement drive that favours spend on recycled products. This would then create demand for post-consumer material and eliminating the need for a levy.”

YOUR view: is a 5p charge the best solution?

Despite many coffee shop retailers previously advertising their cups as ‘100% recyclable’, the recent Hugh’s War on Waste TV programme shed light on a sad reality that as much as 2.5 billion disposable cups are thrown away every year in the UK, but just one in 400 are recycled.

The reason coffee cups are so difficult to recycle is because they are sealed with a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the interior. This lining - which is used by the likes of Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero - is bonded tightly to the paper to prevent it from going soggy, but polyethylene can’t be recycled along with ordinary paper waste by local councils.

LISTEN: The Sustainable Business Covered podcast - How to win the war on waste coffee cups

In the lead up to the TV show, edie hosted an exclusive Sustainable Business Covered podcast episode on the coffee cup recycling debate, incorporating the views of various industry experts including Simply Cups’ Goodwin, circular economy consultant Sandy Rogers and Costa Coffee’s energy and environmental manager Ollie Rosevear.

Subscribe to the Sustainable Business Covered podcast for free here.

Luke Nicholls & Alex Baldwin


Circular economy | green policy


Waste & resource management | CSR & ethics | Green policy
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