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

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

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.

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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.