Coffee chains told to wake up and smell the plastic over disposable cups

“Coffee shops have been pulling the wool over customers’ eyes"

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A coffee-cup in the hands of a litter-bug can certainly be rage-inducing: a friend of mine was once so enraged at the sight of a driver dropping one out of his car window that he cycled over, picked it up and dropped it back inside. The driver, now equally incensed, leapt out and knocked him off his bike.

The offending item could have been anything from a plastic bottle to a crisp packet, and from April 2018 DEFRA will be almost doubling the maximum fine for littering. Yet even in the hands of conscientious recyclers, disposable coffee cups can still infuriate.

In order to conform to health and safety requirements, the vast majority of cups have a plastic inner lining which most local authority facilities are unable to successfully separate and process.

This means that less than 1 per cent of the 2.5 billion disposable cups currently used in the UK each year are subsequently recycled, with many going on to contaminate mainstream paper recycling.

Until now, the UK’s largest chains have attempted to push responsibility for this problem back on to consumers.

Costa, Starbucks, Pret A Manger, Café Nero and Paul have all offered a 25p discount if customers bring in reusable cups: the implication being that if customers don’t take up the offer (and only 1-2 per cent of sales currently do) then the fault must be theirs, not the company’s.

Thankfully a new report from parliament's Disposable Packaging Inquiry has finally called out the coffee shop industry on its “confusing” and “inconsistent” approach. “They have failed to do anything which has effectively tackled the problem,” the report says of manufacturers and coffee shops’ voluntary commitments to date.

Instead of simply offering specialist in-shop recycling bins (which are well-meaning but rather negate the point of “take-out” coffee), the report recommends that coffee shop companies collaborate with existing recycling groups to design an easily recyclable cup. If they cannot do so by 2023, then disposable cups should be outright banned. “It is unacceptable that coffee sellers are perpetuating customer confusion through their use of recycling labels and emphasis on the recyclability of coffee cups, despite the shockingly low recycling rate,” the report warns.

“Coffee shops have been pulling the wool over customers’ eyes”, says Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Mary Creagh MP. The report therefore recommends that cups should be labelled “recyclable in stores only” if in-store recycling is available, and with “not widely recycled” if not.

The report also advises reform of the UK’s producer responsibility schemes, under which taxpayers currently cover around 90 per cent of the costs of disposing of packaging waste. Clearer targets and better incentives are needed to encourage producers to shift towards sustainable cup use, it says.

All this is not to say that we don’t also need a sea-change in consumer habits too. To this end, the report recommends adding a 25p “latte levy” to each coffee sale in a disposable cup. This should both encourage the use of re-useable cups as well as raise money for improving bin and recycling provisions.

Of course, even if all the report’s recommendations are implemented, there is still a long way to go to solve the UK’s plastics’ crisis. “This is a big problem which is getting bigger all the time,” warns Greenpeace’s Fiona Nicholls, "we must not allow the packaging industry to water down these recommendations any further."

But the focus on the small but significant coffee cup could set some important preceedents. Not least in shifting recycling's focus back from consumers to producers. Chef and environmental campaigner hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall told Greenpeace: “The UK has woken up and smelled the coffee cup nightmare - and now there’s no way this horrendous and avoidable problem can be put back to sleep.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.