Latte levy: MPs call for systems overhaul to recycle all disposable coffee cups

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called for all single-use coffee cups to be recycled by 2023, as a new report claims there is "no excuse" for the UK Government's reluctance to address coffee cup waste and that voluntary approaches from retailers are "not working".

The EAC has today (5 January) published its findings from the major inquiry into coffee cup packaging announced in September 2017. The report recommends that a 25p “latte levy” should be placed on all disposable cups, with generated revenue invested in reprocessing and recycling facilities.

The “Disposable packaging: Coffee Cups” report calls on the UK Government and the industry to address the 2.5 billion coffee cups that are thrown away annually by setting a national target to ensure that all single-use products are recycled by 2023, while also placing extra responsibilities on producers. If these measures fail to boost recycling levels of the cups, the EAC has called for an outright ban on disposable coffee cups.

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Mary Creagh MP, said: “The UK’s coffee shop market is expanding rapidly, so we need to kick start a revolution in recycling…Coffee shops have been pulling the wool over customers’ eyes, telling us their cups can be recycled, when less than 1% are. The Government should set a target for all disposable coffee cups to be recycled by 2023. If a sustainable recycling system for disposable coffee cups cannot be set up by this date, they should be banned.”

“Taxpayers are footing the bill for disposing of the billions of coffee cups thrown away each year, whether or not they are coffee drinkers. It is only right that producers should bear more of the financial burden to help recycle their packaging, so my Committee is calling for producer responsibility reform that rewards businesses that use sustainable packaging – and makes those that don’t face higher charges.”

Material issues

Disposable coffee cups are made from paper, but are sealed with a plastic lining to make them waterproof. Although both materials are recyclable, the lining cannot be handled by most recycling facilities. Coffee cups also have to deal with contamination issues.

Paper recyclers in the UK will not take food packaging if it has been contaminated (come into contact with) by food. Under the Confederation of Paper Industries, there is zero tolerance on contaminants. The UK’s manufacturing standard for the paper industry currently classes all disposable cups as “prohibited materials”, as they are regularly contaminated. Prohibited material cannot be used to create new food packaging, which is what most UK paper mills create.

While the report is keen to point out that coffee cups are the “tip of an iceberg” regarding packaging recycling, it does criticise the UK Government and retailers over “inconsistent” voluntary targets to tackle coffee cup waste.

UK recycling and recovery firm Suez’s chief executive David Palmer-Jones added: “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.”

Two of the UK’s largest coffee retailers, Costa and Starbuck’s have launched recycling schemes in all stores to ensure that as many as possible of their own takeaway cups – and those from its competitors – are recycled.

As part of the enquiry, Costa claimed that it’s inhouse system would recycle between 15 million to 30 million cups, but the report claimed that this would still only account for 1.2% of the annual discarded cups in the UK.

Reusable cups

The report calls on retailers to take more responsibility by not only enforcing a 25p levy on disposable cups, but also encouraging “a culture of using a reusable cup wherever possible”, as well as clearer labelling on recyclability. Costa and Starbucks offer 25p discounts for consumers who bring in reusable cups, while Pret this week doubled its discount to 50p.

Commenting on the use of reusable cups, Greenpeace campaigner Fiona Nicholls added: “We need to reduce plastic packaging wherever we can, which in this case means replacing disposable cups with reusable cups, and encouraging business and consumers to use them. There are already some interesting initiatives being introduced to push this forward, they need to be supported and extended.”

The report notes that the levy could mirror the success of the plastic bag charge, which has seen use of single-use plastic bags fall by 83% since its introduction. But despite widespread support from green groups, the Government has distanced itself from a similar approach to coffee cups. As part of the Autumn Budget, chancellor Phillip Hammond noted that the Government would “investigate how the tax systems and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste”.

Defra has taken steps in its investigation. In October, it established the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working group to uncover specific measure to improve the recycling and reuse of packaging.

Producer responsibility

One of the major changes that the report calls for is an overhaul of Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs). The system creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

For the UK, this cost is around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average for producer responsibility at around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%. According to the Local Government Association, this limited compliance scheme generated £111m in 2013, of which just £37m went towards collection. In contrast, it costs local authorities £550m to collect and sort packaging material.

The report calls on the Government to introduce a varied compliance fee structure that rewards designs for recyclability and the use of recycled and compostable materials, while raising costs on other packaging. However, companies producing coffee cups and plastic bottles can still purchase PRNs through other recycled packaging, so design discounts would have to be specific to single-use coffee cups.

Business actions

Businesses are attempting to overcome this problem. Companies such as Costa Coffee, McDonald’s UK and Starbucks agreed a joint deal to accelerate the nationwide recycling with the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK).

More than 400 recycling points will be rolled out across the UK as the industry attempts to emulate the recycling success of drink cartons, which are now collected by 92% of UK local authorities through kerbside collections and recycling bank systems.

Many of the companies involved with that initiative are also involved with the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group’s (PCRRG) Paper Cups Manifesto, which acts as a catalyst for new partnerships and innovation.

However, the overall theme of the report is clear: regulation is needed to guide businesses towards new practices and products that improve the recyclability of single-use coffee cups. This is a notion that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – who originally brought the issue to light with his War on Waste series – agrees with.

“The UK has woken up and smelled the coffee cup nightmare – and now there’s no way this horrendous and avoidable problem can be put back to sleep,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “I welcome their recommendation of a 25p charge on all disposable coffee cups – it will show the Government means business and will focus the mind of the coffee giants on finding a permanent solution to a problem which is of their making.

“But in the end, finding that solution needs to be a matter for law, not just financial incentive. Legislation needs to set a date after which the continued production of unrecyclable coffee cups is banned by law. And this should pave the way for policy that ultimately stops the production of all non-recyclable plastic products.”

Matt Mace

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