What are the solutions to disposable cups?
With plastic pollution being such a hot topic right now, most of the coffee shops are discussing the issue. There are three main solutions proposed.
1. Improve recycling infrastructure
One solution is to keep the cups as they are but ensure that more of them are recycled. Currently, the coffee cup does not have much value as an item to recycle as there is very little return on the effort and cost of recycling them. That explains why there are only four recycling facilities for them.
Costa launched the UK’s National Cup Recycling Scheme in 2018 to pay waste collectors an incentive for every tonne of cups they collect, to help to fund the right infrastructure and processes for cups to be recovered for recycling. 163 million cups have been recycled via the scheme since its launch (40 million a year) and it is now supported by more of the UK’s leading coffee brands: Caffè Nero, Pret a Manger, Greggs.
That’s way under Costa’s target of 500 million by 2020. And it’s nowhere near enough if we throw away 2.5 billion a year.
Costa lobbied against the ‘Latte Levy’
It has been argued that the recycling scheme was started by Costa as an attempt to persuade ministers that there was no need to introduce the ‘Latte Levy’ which they opposed for fear that sales would be affected.
Even though the charge on plastics bags had a huge impact on making people bring their own bags, UK MPs voted against the ‘Latte Levy’, a similar 25p charge on single-use cups in 2018. The levy was recommended by cross-party Environmental Audit Committee. It was meant to fund infrastructure to make all cups recyclable and, if that failed, the sale of disposable cups should be banned by 2023.
Just before it was to be introduced Costa “obstructively lobbied” against it and the proposal was dropped. Costa said it wouldn’t work and claimed the government would be “deliberately targeting coffee drinkers” and questioned whether cups made from plastic and paper could be deemed single-use plastic because they are ‘recyclable’.
Not long after this, Costa was bought by Coca-Cola, another single-use packaging company that has lobbied against deposit return systems or other legislation to regulate single-use plastic.
Surcharge vs discount
The Environmental Audit Committee found that consumers are more likely to respond to extra charges than they are to discounts.
A 25p surcharge on takeaway cups in the Houses of Parliament’s own catering outlets introduced in October 2018 led to a 74% reduction in single use cups. Starbucks introduced its own 5p ‘latte levy’ and noticed that there was a 126% increase in the use of reusable cups but still the vast majority of customers were using the disposable option.
Scotland have unilaterally decided to introduce a mandatory 20-25p surcharge, hopefully later in 2022.
Boston Tea Party said that the discount didn’t really work as an incentive. "We know first-hand this has a very low penetration and when we launched that scheme ourselves, only 5% of customers took it up.”
But with no mandatory charge scheme or levy, the UK government recommended that shops voluntarily introduced reusable cup discounts which most coffee shops plumped for. Perhaps they are banking on the fact that most people forget to bring their reusable cup so it doesn’t affect their income.
2. Redesign the take-away cup
A few companies in this guide – Esquires Coffee House, Harris + Hoole and Coffee#1 – have redesigned their take-away cups into ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ versions. They’re still single use but maybe better than recycling. However, there are a couple of significant problems with this approach.
Cups that are labelled ‘compostable’ cannot just be thrown onto your garden compost and need to be sent to a special industrial plant to be composted because home compost doesn’t get hot enough. There’s only 50 in the UK, not all of which deal with packaging. Many councils are not yet accepting them on the kerbside, meaning that they can be just as difficult to recycle as the paper-polyethylene cups.
The plant starch used has the potential to do harm to the environment. As George Monbiot pointed out in 2018 in reaction to a call for Starbucks and Costa to replace their plastic with corn starch:
“Those who supported this call failed to ask themselves where the corn starch would come from, how much land would be needed to grow it, or how much food production it would displace. They overlooked the damage this cultivation would inflict: growing corn (maize) is notorious for causing soil erosion, and often requires heavy doses of pesticides and fertilisers.”