As part of our ongoing Cut the Cup Waste campaign, The Independent set out to investigate whether coffee chains are providing customers with a consistent choice of reusable china cups when drinking their beverages in store.
Most of the UK’s major high street coffee outlets previously told The Independent their policy is to provide such cups to customers who are drinking in. Taking caffeine in our stride, we hit the streets to find out if they were as good as their word.
Coffee chains have come under pressure to deal with disposable coffee cups after a report from the Environmental Audit Committee in January revealed the UK throws away seven million cups every day.
The Independent’s Cut the Cup Waste campaign has called for coffee shop firms to comply with one of the proposals of that committee, to include a 25p charge on all drinks sold in disposable cups – a so-called “latte levy” – as well as to take other measures to tackle the problem.
An exclusive poll for The Independent has found that the majority of the British public would back a surcharge.
In the meantime, there are simpler ways to cut down on coffee cup waste that do not present a major inconvenience to either the business or the consumer. Ensuring that beverages consumed in cafes are not served in disposable cups seems like an easy win.
This week The Independent tried out a selection of coffee chains to discover whether customers drinking in were served their drinks in china, rather than plastic-lined paper.
After visiting branches of Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Pret A Manger, most outlets came up trumps, happily offering us china cups.
However, some were less reliable, meaning takeaway coffee cups were used regardless of whether we were drinking in or out.
Costa Coffee is the largest coffee chain in the UK, with over 2,000 outlets. They told us they sell around 60 per cent of their drinks in crockery, and that it is offered to any customers staying in the café.
True to form, all three of the outlets we visited served their drinks to The Independent in china cups, after establishing whether or not they were being consumed on the premises.
Caffè Nero too was consistent in offering china cups at all three of the outlets sampled, as a spokesperson from the company had previously indicated.
However, while Starbucks said they provide customers with ceramic cups to drink from, they were less consistent. Only one of the three outlets sampled offered The Independent a china cup.
In an effort to cut down on cup waste, the company has said it will “redouble efforts” to ensure that drink-in customers are always offered ceramic cups.
Pret A Manger fared even less well, with none of the three outlets sampled offering reusable china cups.
A spokesperson from the business had previously acknowledged that such cups are not available in every shop, but that they offered them “where possible”.
Notably, even in shops where The Independent was offered the opportunity to drink from a china cup, there were still many customers drinking from disposable cups.
This suggests that both customers and businesses need to be proactive in requesting and distributing china cups to drink from if beverages are being consumed in store.
Besides the “latte levy” the Environmental Audit Committee also called for companies to make labelling about cup recycling clearer and to take financial responsibility for their unrecyclable cups.
Their report concluded that if cups are not made recyclable within five years, they should be banned outright.
Since the committee released its report, coffee chains have been making pledges to tackle their disposable cup waste.
Pret A Manger now offer a 50p discount on the price of hot drinks if customers bring their own cups, while Starbucks has announced plans to charge customers 5p for disposable cups in some outlets.
Alongside plastic bottles, straws and microbeads, disposable cups have joined a growing list of single-use plastic items being targeted by environmentalists, politicians and the general public due to the harm they cause to the environment.
The brief time they spend actually being used contrasts sharply with the hundreds of years such items take to decompose naturally.
Public awareness of plastic pollution has grown in the wake of Blue Planet II, which has raised awareness of the impact plastics can have on marine ecosystems in particular.
Animals are consuming or becoming tangled in this detritus and harmful chemicals are leaching into the marine environment from the plastic items adrift in the world’s oceans.
Local movements across the UK from Penzance to Shetland are attempting to completely phase out single-use plastics.
Yet despite a pledge from the Chancellor Philip Hammond that steps would be taken to tackle the “scourge of plastic littering our planet and our oceans”, MPs have criticised the lack of tangible progress so far.
Despite their various pledges, businesses have also come under fire for not pulling their weight.
Though the vast majority of these disposable cups are sold by high street chains, when asked by The Independent how many were used each day some of the country’s largest chains were unable to provide the figure.
This prompted environmentalists to call for transparency and cooperation from businesses when dealing with this problem.
As it stands, taxpayers are footing the bill for 90 per cent of the cost of collecting, sorting and disposing of waste coffee cups.
Disposable coffee cups are made primarily from paper, but lined with plastic, meaning they cannot be recycled at standard facilities.
Instead, cups must be taken to special recycling plants that are capable of splitting the paper and plastic components.
As only three such facilities exist in the UK, less than one per cent of coffee cups end up being recycled.
What you can do
1. So far the MPs’ report is just a recommendation. Have your say: write to your MP supporting the proposal.
2. Tell us what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you send us one of the 100 most useful comments, we’ll forward it on to the Environmental Audit Committee and we’ll send you an Independent-branded reusable coffee cup.
3. Buy a reusable coffee cup – many cafes already offer a discount to customers who bring their own cup. You can find a selection of our recommendations here.
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