MPs have today called for drastic action to tackle the UK’s mountain of unrecycled disposable coffee cups, demanding a new 25p tax on every one used.
The members of an influential Commons committee hit out at big-name coffee chains for failing to act on the growing problem and said if all cups are not recycled within five years an outright ban should be placed on them.
In a report published on Friday, they said the Government had “sat on its hands” as the country has proceeded to throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups a year.
Introducing a 25p “latte levy” on top of the price of a drink - a move backed by The Independent - would pay to improve the UK’s reprocessing facilities and “binfastructure” and ultimately change people’s behaviour, said Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.
The Government has recently taken action to tackle plastic bags and is also under pressure to act more widely on non-recyclable plastics.
But with the UK’s burgeoning coffee shop culture, attention has now turned to the growing problem of difficult-to-recycle cups littering the streets and clogging up the waste-disposal systems.
Some shops already give money off the price of a hot drink for customers who use reusable cups, such as Pret A Manger, which this week announced it would double its discount to 50p in an effort to encourage people to reduce their waste.
And Starbucks has said the company will start a three-month trail next month of 5p charge for disposable cups in up to 25 London stores, adding that its trial of a 50p discount for customers using reusable cups in 2016 “did not move the needle in the way we thought it might”. Just 1.8 per cent of its customers currently use recyclable cups.
Last year researchers at Cardiff University concluded that charging 25p for every coffee cup would help cut the number used by up to 300 million a year.
Ms Creagh said: “Coffee shops have been pulling the wool over customers’ eyes, telling us their cups can be recycled, when less than 1 per cent are.
“The Government should set a target of 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.”
She added that coffee cup producers and distributors have not taken action to rectify the scale of waste and claimed the Government “has sat on its hands”.
“The UK’s coffee shop market is expanding rapidly,” she said. “So we need to kick-start a revolution in recycling. We’re calling for action to reduce the number of single-use cups, promote reusable cups over disposable cups and to recycle all coffee cups by 2023.”
Laura Foster, the head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society, said the charge would be similar to plastic bag charge introduced in 2015 and would “help consumers think about whether to take a refill cup to the café”.
In 2016, figures showed the number of single-use plastic bags used by consumers in England dropped by more than 85 per cent in the first year of the ban.
Ms Foster added: “We totally agree with the committee that if 100 per cent recycling of coffee cups isn’t reached by 2023, then there should be an outright ban on providing them – and that date should be set in stone.
“Only by treating this issue as one that is the responsibility of both industry and consumers will re-use become the norm in place of single-use and throw away.”
Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner Fiona Nicholls said the country needs to make sure it recycles all the plastic it produces, or risk making millions of tonnes of pollution, which ends up in the food chain.
“Non-recyclable plastic products from polystyrene, PVC or mixed materials need to be phased out, and quickly,” she said.
“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.”
She added: “This is a big problem which is getting bigger all the time … we must not allow the packaging industry to water down these recommendations any further.”
Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall branded the problem “horrendous” and saying it needs “urgent action”.
Environmental charity Hubbub said it was “disappointed” that the industry had not used lessons from two successful cup recycling campaigns – one in London which recycled more than four million cups since its launch in April 2017 and another in Manchester which recycled almost 30,000 cups from one street alone – to achieve a wider impact.
A spokesperson said: “We welcome this report and hope it will stimulate the industry to do more.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the Government “will closely consider the committee’s recommendations and respond shortly”.
They added: “We are encouraged by industry action to increase the recycling of paper cups with some major retail chains now offering discounts to customers with reusable cups.”
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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