British MPs call for a 25p 'latte levy' on disposable cups

coffee cup waste
CC BY 2.0 Hat4Rain -- Enjoyed for 10 minutes, now set to linger for years

In an attempt to get coffee cup waste under control, a recommendation has been made to start charging for disposables, rather than discounting reusables.

A group of British MPs is calling for tougher action on disposable coffee cups. Approximately 1.5 billion disposable cups are thrown away each year in the United Kingdom, enough to circle the Earth five and a half times, but only 0.25 percent of these are recycled. That's just one out of every 400 cups.

The Environmental Audit Committee published a report today, recommending that the government introduce a 25-pence (around USD$ .34) "latte levy", or tax, on every disposable coffee cup. Currently many coffee shops offer an equivalent discount to customers who bring reusable cups (Pret A Manger just upped its discount to 50p), but awareness and uptake is very low, around 1 percent. The Committee writes in its report:

"We heard evidence that consumers are more responsive to a charge than a discount and that a charge on disposable cups could reduce use by up to 30 percent."

A charge has worked well to reduce the number of plastic grocery bags. Within the first year of charging for bags, usage decreased by 83 percent in the UK. Not only does a charge hurt the buyer ever so slightly, but it serves as a constant reminder of why a product is unsustainable.

A charge could also generate money to improve what little recycling infrastructure already exists. The recycling process is complex, as it consists of separating a thin plastic layer from paper, and most recyclers don't have the ability to do this. (Learn more about the recycling process here.)

Only three companies in the UK recycle coffee cups. (That number is also three in the United States, out of 450 paper mills.) A spokesman for one told the Guardian that it supports the levy if that money will go toward helping transport cups from retailers to recycling facilities, which he calls "the key link missing in the chain."

"Just five retailers have taken up [one company's] cup recycling initiative and the firm has recycled just 10m cups following a target of 500 million a year."

The MPs' report calls for additional steps beyond the 25p levy:

-- A full ban on disposable coffee cups if a target that all takeaway cups are recyclable by 2023 is not met
-- Coffee shops should pay more toward disposing of cups (but they will save money by not having to buy as many cups)
-- Clearer labeling that says "not widely recyclable" on cups

The MPs should also take note of what the city of Freiburg, in Germany, has done to reduce disposable plastic cups. A similar return system could certainly be implemented in any urban center.

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