Footprint’s five things to know: disposable cups

Costa misses target by a country mile, Wrap’s whopping report reveals lowly recycling rates and is Starbucks really eliminating single-use cups?

1. Cup report finally appears. The Foodservice Packaging Association had been wondering if the Wrap/Valpak report on single-use paper cups would ever see the light of day. Indeed, findings had been referenced in a recent government call for evidence on charging for disposable cups but where was the actual research? On February 17th the FPA got its wish – all 314 pages of it. Some 3.2 billion fibre-composite (plastic-lined) cups were placed on the market in 2019. This equates to 35,300 tonnes of waste, with just 2.8% recycled. Of the one billion plastic cups, around 2% to 4% were recycled. There is enough recycling capacity to recycle all of these cups, said Wrap. Recycling rates for the lids, most of which are made from polystyrene, is close to zero, however. The report also looked at fibre-composite food packaging: 3.2 billion pieces of this were used in 2019 but there was “no treatment or recycling infrastructure in place” for this.

2. Costa’s cup target. Footprint can also reveal similarly disappointing results from an industry-led scheme to recycle more disposable cups. Four years ago, in April 2018, Costa made a promise to recycle the equivalent of all its take-away cups. The company said that “up to 100 million cups will be recycled” in 2018, rising to 500 million in 2020. Waste contractors were offered a premium to collect and recycle the cups under a national cup recycling scheme, which the coffee chain founded with Valpak. Costa’s MD at the time, Dominic Paul, said “if the nation’s other coffee chains sign up, there is no reason why all takeaway cups could not be recycled by as early as 2020”. McDonald's, Caffè Nero, Pret A Manger, Greggs, Burger King, Pure and Lavazza Professional joined, as did a number of waste companies. So, how’s it all going? Since the scheme began “we have collected and recycled over 165 million cups, equating to 1,793 tonnes”, says a Costa spokeswoman. “Whilst this is below our initial ambitious target we have made progress in building the scheme.” 

3. Mandatory takeback scheme for 2024. These lowly recycling rates for an emblem of our throw-away society have clearly given policymakers pause for thought. Last week, as part of its announcement on extended producer responsibility for packaging reforms, the government confirmed plans to introduce a mandatory takeback scheme for fibre-based single-use cups. From 2024 (not 2023 as originally mooted) businesses with 10 or more full-time staff will need to put dedicated cup recycling bins in place. They will have to report tonnages they place on the market and how much has been sent for recycling. A recycling target will need to be met from 2026. Industry will want a realistic target but should be mindful that a failure to meet whatever target is set could see the government reach for a bigger stick.

4. Latte levy. An exclusive survey conducted by Vypr for the new Footprint report on packaging showed 54% of consumers are keen on a so-called ‘latte levy’, in which a charge is applied to single-use cups. Most coffee shops currently favour a discount for bringing a reusable cup but evidence – including that from Starbucks and Hubbub – suggests it’s not as effective as charging for them. The UK government has new powers in the Environment Act and is seemingly keen to use them. Responses to a call for evidence on charging for disposable cups are currently being reviewed. “We are primed for government intervention,” said Paula Chin, WWF senior policy advisor (consumption), recently. The Wrap report mentioned above also details the pros and cons of six different policy interventions, including charges, targets and bans, and will be discussed in more detail in the regular Plastics Package column in due course. The key objection, Wrap maintained, is to “reduce the impacts of single-use cups” and “reduce the use of single-use packaging and switch to reusable alternatives (e.g. for cups), then to increase the recycling of single-use packaging wastes”.

5. Starbucks drinks in cup coverage. Of the 15.6 million metric tonnes of CO2e Starbucks emitted globally in 2018, around 5% (900,000tCO2e) were from packaging, according to the company’s 2018 environmental baseline report. Some 55% of all its waste (477,400 tonnes of 868,000 tonnes by weight) leaves it stores, 85% of which is packaging. Its cups are responsible for some 96,000 tonnes of CO2e, with the vast majority landfilled. Recycled content in the cups stands at 11% with a target to double that by the end of this year. But has the coffee chain also promised to get rid of single-use cups by 2025?  Yes, according to CNBC, which reported that Starbucks plans to “eliminate” single-use cups. “The cup is 20% of our waste footprint globally, but more than that, it is an icon,” chief sustainability officer Michael Kobori told the US news network. “This is Starbucks’ icon all around the world, and if we can replace this disposable cup, this symbol of waste, with this reusable [version], we completely change people’s mindset.” In reality, however, the company’s goal is only to create a “cultural movement” towards reusables. A number of trials are underway in the US, UK, Japan and Singapore to encourage reuse. In Canary Wharf, London, customers using one of four stores can pay a returnable £1 deposit for a reusable cup; returned cups are professionally cleaned and sanitised before being used again.

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