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Lib Dems call for a Coffee Cup Levy

17th October 2016

After the success of the 5p charge for plastic bags in reducing disposable bag usage, the Liberal Democrats have called for a similar levy against disposable coffee cups.  The problem of disposable coffee cups has recently been drawn to public attention through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “War on waste”.  Fearnley-Whittingstall has highlighted the extent of coffee cup wastage in the UK, suggesting that merely 1 in 400 of the 7 million cups used each day are recycled.  One of the major factors contributing to this is the difficulty of recycling the waterproof paper cups, something which cannot be achieved through the conventional public waste collection.  Instead, specialist firms with this capacity are relied upon, yet there are very few of such firms.  A post on the Liberal Democrats’ website highlights the issue and challenges, and sees a levy and a shift in consumer behaviour as a key solution.

Although the details of this proposition are yet to be specified, it has come under criticism from Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association.  Kersh suggests that the comparison between coffee cups and plastic carrier bags is poor, as coffee consumers have indicated they desire to be able to consume coffee when and where they like.  Instead of charging consumers for their cup and relying on a shift in consumer culture, Kersh indicates that the state should focus on improving the accessibility of recycling for such waterproofed, paper cups. Indeed, this is part of the Paper Cup Manifesto, a voluntary commitment and partnership of different players to improve the recycling and recovery of paper cups.

It is not clear, however, why a charge for coffee cups cannot be part of a broader effort to reduce the volume of disposable cups reaching landfill sites.  There seems little reason why the money raised from such a levy could not go towards improvements in the recycling infrastructure for disposable cups, whilst also contributing to a reduction in cup usage and a shift in consumer behaviour.  Kersh correctly identifies that a cup of any sort is a necessity for a take-away coffee, unlike much shopping in smaller quantities, and a shift in consumer behaviour towards bringing one’s own cup would be required.  Despite this, most, if not all, coffee chains sell travel cups which could be used for take-away coffee, and Keep Cup products enable consumers to bring a reusable cup of their own design in a variety of different sizes.

The availability of reusable cups indicates that provision for a change in consumer behaviour akin to the 85% reduction in plastic bag usage since the 5p charge was brought in is present.   It should not be assumed that this levy would be a silver bullet for all coffee cup waste.  Despite this, a charge for coffee cups may kickstart the necessary consumer action to increase the use of reusable coffee vessels, increase investment in recycling, and create an overall reduction in coffee cup waste.


Coffee cup waste - could a levy reduce this?
Coffee cup waste – could a levy reduce this?