A combination of carrot and stick is needed to tackle single-use cup waste, argues Ecoffee Cup founder David McLagan.
The waste created by single-use items is a significant global issue and takeaway coffee cups contribute more than their fair share: 100 billion end up in landfill globally each year – more than 270 million cups every single day.
The war on waste has gathered momentum in the last six months thanks to a marked increase in media coverage driven by celebrities and some sectors of government.
Some independent and chain cafés have responded well, with many now providing incentives for customers to switch single-use in favour of reuse, Pret's 50p discount being a game-changer. But it's not the silver bullet. While price incentives are positive, we strongly believe that consumers will only truly change behaviour through a combination of incentive and penalty. The punitive aspect still needs to be thrashed out, but until consumers feel the pinch we feel they are not likely to change their long-term behaviour.
In January 2018 MPs called for a so-called latte levy – a 25p charge for purchasing drinks in a single-use cup – hoping this would encourage consumers to bring their own reusable cup.
Immediately after the levy was proposed, images of various cabinet ministers sporting an Ecoffee Cup outside No 10 emerged in the press – triggered, we presume, by increased public and media scrutiny of DEFRA’s shameful reliance on single-use cups. While this show of support was a welcome gesture to highlight the issue, it lacked any real action by way of policy.
In the weeks that followed we began to think that the latte levy may have been nothing more than froth – a convenient way to grab headlines without any genuine legislative attempt to change. So it came with a degree of excitement to hear the chancellor Philip Hammond’s plans to redress the issue in his spring statement, vowing to launch an investigation into a possible tax on single-use waste. The hope is that it actually amounts to some meaningful change this time.
We have already witnessed the encouraging effects a tax on single-use plastics can have. The 5p charge on plastic carrier bags introduced in England in October 2015 was a landmark piece of legislation and has been credited with changing consumer behaviour and resulting in the reduction of single-use bag usage of more than 80%.
There is no reason why a tax on single-use cups wouldn’t work in much the same way, with consumers receptive: a poll by the Marine Conservation Society found that three-quarters of Brits would support such a charge.
However, compared with the 5p plastic bag tax, a 25p charge for cups seems unduly punitive on the café industry – especially smaller independent operators. We don't want something that may be detrimental to profitability and jobs as this would be counterproductive. People also question where the tax ends up, so this needs to be made clear. Our suggestion would be to ring-fence this revenue for use in initiatives directly designed to help consumers kick their reliance on single-use items.
A 10p charge per cup seems a bit more commensurate, but obviously that's for the policymakers to decide.
What we cannot deny is that something must be done as a matter of urgency and this needs to be a combination of incentives for reuse, penalties for single-use and improved infrastructure for recycling.
I’m ever hopeful that 2018 will be a watershed in the war on waste. We need consumers, businesses and government to act in unison in order to reduce the huge volumes of single-use items going to landfill.
The problem is likely to take a long time to improve, however, so we can’t expect instant solutions.
The #Stopthe100billion campaign was set up by Ecoffee Cup in 2015 in an attempt to raise awareness of single-use cup waste.