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Will a ‘latte levy’ really reduce the number of disposable cups we throw away?

Will a latte levy reduce waste?

Due to the recent statistics on waste revealing that the UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year, the Environmental Audit Committee has called on the Government to apply a 25p tax charge on all drinks served in disposable cups, and to set a target to ensure all take-out coffee cups are recycled by 2023.

Of course, the issue of sustainability is repeatedly posing new questions for the Government to answer. The recent 5p tax on plastic carrier bags has proved effective in reducing waste, as, since its implementation in 2015, there has been an 85% reduction in single-use carrier bags given out at stores. It would seem true therefore, that a comparable ‘latte levy’ would result in the same level of waste reduction for those who frequent coffee shops, take-aways and mobile food businesses.

However, it is arguable that simply charging the consumer more for their drinks isn’t going to be enough to raise awareness of how little our coffee cups are already recycled. As the EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP explained: “Coffee shops have been pulling the wool over customers’ eyes, telling us their cups can be recycled, when less than 1% are.” There are only 3 recycling facilities in the UK that can separate the paper cups from their plastic lining in order to recycle them, so although the ‘Recyclable’ logo on cups means they can be recycled, it very rarely means they actually are.

The EAC want to see better labelling on coffee cups to further educate customers on the best ways to dispose of their cups. Whether they are compostable, or recyclable in store only, labels must inform customers whether the product they have purchased will risk damaging their environment.

So how will the committee’s calls effect sustainability in the food industry?

The Foodservice Packaging Association stated that by singling out coffee cups, the EAC is ‘looking for UK coffee retailers and their cup providers to underwrite the waste management of all packaging used on the go’ and that, instead, the problem would be better solved by a Government reform on waste management infrastructure.

This is reflected in a statement from Biopac, one of NCASS’s supplier members, who gave us their take on the issue:

“Biopac is pleased with the high amount of press around single use disposables and recycling in the UK. Such levels of exposure will only help highlight the ongoing issues that the industry is facing. We would like to reiterate our stance that taxing the use of these items is not an effective way forward, and merely patches over the underlying issues with waste management and infrastructure in the UK. Biopac specialises in compostable packaging and their disposal. We welcome the ongoing discussions surrounding this important issue but will continue to push for compostable packaging to form part of the solution.”

It seems then that the EAC’s focus on charging the consumer may be misdirected. We contacted Cliff Eden, an NCASS member who has been a mobile coffee caterer for seven years, for his opinion on the issue:

“I understand that the only retailers the Parliamentary Audit Committee spoke with were Costa and Starbucks, and seem to have based their recommendations on usage by office workers and commuters only. They suggest customers keep a reusable cup in their office drawer or in their car. They have given no thought to the event or mobile markets.

A levy does nothing to get cups recycled – it simply fines customers for choosing a takeout drink. Most of my customers are at events or markets in tourist locations. (We have a pitch outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon from Easter till Christmas). They make an impulse buy. They won’t carry a cup around with them.

Asked if they will pay an extra tax on top of the cost of their coffee, most have said that they’d not make the purchase. So the Government risk putting mobile coffee vendors out of business.

Coffee cups can be recycled into packaging. It’s being done now.

One solution would be for all retailers to accept any vendors used cups. (Costa and Starbucks will take their own cups back now). These could be deposited at waste transfer stations by the vendors and collected by specialist recyclers.

The problem at present is that the logistics to collect and recycle the cups isn’t in place. The Government should focus on this rather than extra taxation and, as they suggest in their report, an eventual total ban.”

At NCASS, our stance is as follows:

“We have always held values for sustainability and environmental protection in the food industry, and though we are pleased to see a wide discussion on the recycling issue, we would prefer to see the focus make a turn towards the importance of integrating compostable packaging into businesses. We believe this is a crucial time for the Government to put more structure in place for waste management and recycling. However, we do not agree that a tax paid by the consumer is the correct solution to the waste problem. More funding for those already working on waste management will be the best way to respond to the call for action from the EAC. Sustainability education for businesses and consumers is far more important than a monetary charge, and here at NCASS we endeavour to provide that education to all of our members.”

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