England’s NHS has got through more than half a billion disposable cups over the past five years, new figures show.
The data emerged as pressure mounts on the UK government to take action on disposable coffee cups as part of its ongoing fight against the “scourge of plastic waste”.
Figures obtained by the Press Association show that NHS trusts in England have purchased around 600 million disposable cups since 2013 – the equivalent of more than 300,000 per day.
Disposable cups are used by the NHS for hot and cold drinks, as well as for dispensing medicine.
In some settings there will be clinical reasons behind the use of single-use cups – such as avoiding the use of glass in some mental health wards.
While some varieties of disposable cup can be readily recycled, others present more of a challenge – including the plastic-lined coffee cups that were the subject of an Environmental Audit Committee report earlier this year.
The Independent’s own Cut the Cup Waste campaign has called for action from government and businesses on these cups, and found the majority of the British public would support a “latte levy” to help discourage their use.
Earlier this year England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, called on the NHS – as one of the world’s largest employers – to cut its pollutant footprint.
Some trusts have already taken steps to reduce the use of single-use plastics and cut down on waste.
A number of hospitals have reintroduced china cups to their wards to reduce the number of disposable cups.
The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust stated: “This not only improves the patient experience but reduces waste volumes.”
Other hospitals have made significant pledges to reduce the use of single-use plastic and paper cups.
The news comes as it was also revealed that many government departments cannot provide information about the number of disposable cups they are purchasing.
Of 20 Whitehall departments contacted, only seven gave any information about the number of disposable cups bought over the past five years
A spokesman said the government is “committed to reducing its own use of single-use plastics”, but the official response did not address the figures highlighted across the NHS in England.
Commenting on the figures, Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “We all know we’re using far too much throwaway plastic, but these huge figures demonstrate just how out of control our relationship with single-use plastic has become.
“In the last five years the health service has used half a billion disposable cups – they can’t all be captured and recycled, so it’s time for the government to step in and help suppliers find viable solutions.”
Dr Sue Kinsey, senior pollution policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “If it really is an impossibility to wash cups, at the very least the service should move away from using polystyrene, which is not easily recyclable, and move to a system where cups are collected and recycled.”
A spokesman for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said: “Guy’s and St Thomas’ is one of the biggest trusts in the country and includes a large dental hospital where a high number of plastic cups are used in a clinical setting.
“The figures provided also include all disposable cups used and sold in the trust’s many catering outlets.
“As an organisation we are committed to providing the most sustainable healthcare services possible. We have a number of initiatives which aim to reduce the number of disposable cups that we use.”
While the government has introduced measures to tackle plastic bottles and microbeads, its recent failure to back a 25p charge on throwaway coffee cups was condemned by environmental organisations.
Proponents of the charge say it would be an effective way to cut down on the use of disposable cups.
The success of a similar charge on plastic bags in reducing waste was recently supported by a study that found fewer bags on the seabed in recent years.
Additional reporting by PA
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