Costa: PRN reform, not latte levy, needed to tackle coffee cup waste

A reform to the UK's Producer Responsibility Obligation (PRO) framework and Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system would accelerate the shift to a circular economy more effectively than a 'latte levy', Costa's energy & environment manager Oliver Rosevear has claimed.

Speaking at paper cup recycling firm Simply Cups’ annual summit in London last week, Rosevear was asked why Costa had not lobbied in favour of a 25p tax on disposable cups, given the company’s leadership position on incentivising cup recycling and reusable cup use.

“Our focus is very much around driving reuse up and recovering the remaining paper cups. My worry with the latte levy is that it’s very specific on coffee cups and that the funds raised would not go towards recycling on-the-go,” Rosevear replied.

“One of the other challenges we’ve seen is that the PRN system has been, historically, massively underfunded – businesses have had to contribute 10%, with local authorities contributing the rest. We are therefore having to fund the waste management industry and incentivise it to collect and recycle cups.”

Rosevear’s sentiments were echoed by Benders Paper Cups’ marketing manager Adrian Pratt, who argued that money raised through PRNs – unlike funds the proposed latte levy would generate – would be funnelled back into kerbside recycling schemes and infrastructure improvement projects.

“Cups are just one part of on-the-go – a PRN system reform will share the burden of cost across all packaging that goes to market,” Pratt said. “It’s with industry now to prove that the path we’re on will deliver a higher use of reusable cups and recycling solutions at scale.”

Under the UK’s current PRO scheme, packaging producers have a legal obligation to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing PRNs – which cost about €20/tonne in the UK.

In other European nations, the average stands at around €150/tonne – a rate which companies such as SUEZ have claimed would incentivise a more rapid shift away from single-use items within the UK’s business community.

A storm in a coffee cup

Whitbread-owned Costa is widely renowned as an industry leader in cup recycling, having pledged this year to recycle the equivalent of its entire annual sales of takeaway cups – at a financial cost to the business – by 2020.

As the UK’s biggest coffee chain, Costa distributes a fifth of the 2.5 billion coffee cups that are currently being thrown away annually across the country, making the commitment particularly noteworthy.

Announced in April, the pledge came after Costa installed in-store recycling at more than 2,000 of its UK locations and partnered with McDonald’s, Starbucks and others to roll out 400 additional cup recycling points across the UK

During the Simply Cups conference, Rosevear was asked why and how Costa was incentivising reusable cup use, given this recycling offering.

In response, he explained that his heart was “fully invested” in the switch to reuse, but that behaviour change remained a challenge, with most customers “not yet willing” to carry a reusable cup with them.

“We want to make people realise that they do have an opportunity to make an impact, but to deal with the disposables which are still used. It’s a two-pronged attack,” Rosevear said.

“I don’t think we could go solely down the reuse route as that is a massive sea change, but it is somewhere we are on the journey to. Using reusables, therefore, has to be made practical and easy and incentives have to be offered.”

For Costa, this incentive takes the form of a 25p discount on all hot drinks for customers bringing their own cup. The introduction of this discount has seen the proportion of customers using reusable cups rise from 1% to 3%, Rosevear noted. In a bid to drive further change, Costa recently launched a reusable coffee cup with a contactless payment chip

Beyond incremental action

The conference comes at a time when just one in every 400 coffee cups distributed within the UK is collected for recycling, with more than 500,000 cups littered every day, according to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Indeed, more than 100,000 trees are believed to be logged each year in order to produce single-use coffee cups for use within the UK, with Brits spending £7.9bn annually on takeaway hot drinks.

Appearing at the Simply Cups conference alongside Rosevear and Pratt, EAC chair Mary Creagh MP argued that a latte levy would be the only policy capable of creating a circular economy for coffee cups, citing the success of deposit return schemes in nations such as Germany and Starbucks’ 5p cup charge in London. 

“People respond better to a charge than a discount and until you are paying for a cup, you will litter it,” Creagh said.

“The latte levy is the only way we are going to get consumer behaviour to change and it is very wrong of the Chancellor, after all the things he said last year about tackling single-use plastics, not to introduce it.

Creagh additionally critiqued coffee chains like Costa for implementing “end-of-pipe” solutions, rather than restructuring their business models in a way which would eliminate single-use items such as cups.

“I never criticise people for trying, but these companies are still stuck in the business model of today – which is growing and expanding, with nothing changing in terms of resources and the environment,” Creagh added.

“We’ve got to get out of today’s mindset and into tomorrow’s – we’ve got 12 years to tackle carbon emissions and move rapidly to net-zero. Businesses will not survive unless they have sustainability at their core.”

Responding to Creagh’s comments, Rosevear explained that Costa’s solution also involved working with waste management firms and companies responsible for on-the-go recycling infrastructure, giving it the capability to drive progress outside its own operations.

“We want to make sure not only that we take our responsibility, but that the whole system plays its part,” he explained.

“It’s not just about the coffee shops – train stations, airports, shopping centres, offices and universities have responsibilities too.”

Sarah George

Comments (2)

  1. Mark Woodward says:

    Eliminate, reduce, recycle, we need consumers to take responsibility, if they have to use a paper cup they should recycle, it has never been easier to recycle a paper cup, with over 1,500 collection points, over 80% of councils offer bring-banks, and over 20% offer kerbside collections, and that is on top of all the in-store recycling in most national chains being done.
    We need more positive headlines "UK probably the largest recycler of paper cups in the world" might help.

  2. Michael Mann says:

    Being able to wash your re-usable cup at the retailer might also help take-up. I wouldn’t want to drink my americano or espresso out of the same unwashed cup I had my cappucino in. There are many people who are not office-based with access to those facilities, or just out for the day. Re-use should be the aim – not single use. Eliminate – a UK first said in a Dalek voice.

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