Starbucks introduces 5p surcharge on disposable cups in London

Starbucks cups
CC BY 2.0 Ruben Schade

It's an environmental effort that's about as insipid as their milky lattes.

Starbucks UK has announced a 5-pence surcharge on all disposable coffee cups sold in 35 locations across London, starting today. It's a trial set to last three months. The decision was made as part of the chain's efforts to reduce waste and incentivize customers to use ceramic mugs or bring their own reusable cups.

Back in January, a group of British MPs made a recommendation that coffee chains institute a 25p "latte levy." With an estimated 5,000 cups being discarded every minute in the UK, and less than 1 percent of those being recycled, something needs to be done about the quantity of waste. The MPs said that charging extra for disposables is a more effective strategy than discounting reusables, just as charging for single-use plastic bags at the grocery store cut down their use by 83 percent within the first year in the UK.

Starbucks Europe's VP of communications, Simon Redfern, said he hopes the surcharge will encourage customers to rethink their decision to use disposable cups. Baristas will ask customers if they want their drinks in ceramic before automatically adding the extra 5p to disposables. Redfern stated in a press release,

"We’ve offered a reusable cup discount for 20 years, with only 1.8% of customers currently taking up this offer, so we’re really interested... to see how this charge could help to change behaviour and help to reduce waste."

It all sounds very nice and well-intentioned, but I lack enthusiasm for this initiative. Five pence is an awfully small amount, especially when you consider how much Starbucks charges for its fancy drinks. Heck, the new fee is a measly 1 percent of the cost of a £5 latte! Levies need to hurt a bit in order to work, and I suspect this one will not.

I'd love to see some real action for a change. Imagine if a massive surcharge were introduced, like an extra £1 for a disposable cup, enough to make customers stop in their tracks. Pair that with a significant rebate on reusables, like 50 percent off if you bring your own cup. Now that would really catch people's attention.

Picture banning disposables outright and remodelling the entire facility so that people stand at a funky Italian-style bar to drink their espresso on the go. (They'd lose weight and save money.) Or introducing a reusable cup system like the one in Freiburg, Germany, where empty cups could be dropped off at any Starbucks location. There are so many other, better, more dramatic ways of effecting environmental change.

This feels to me like a bit of a PR stunt, an attempt by Starbucks to look like they're doing something about the enormous cup waste problem, but not really. There's no mention of a cup redesign, which is what's needed more than anything -- a switch to an all-paper cup that can be fully recycled or composted. No doubt some will disagree with me, saying, "It's better than nothing!" But is it? I don't know. The effort seems about as insipid as a Starbucks latte, and I'd rather hold out for the real thing.

At least Starbucks has partnered with Hubbub, an environmental charity and expert on behavioral change. Hubbub will receive all proceeds from the surcharge and will use them to help track the impact of this trial. I guess we'll have to wait and see how it goes. Hopefully I'm proven wrong.

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