Scotland latte levy edges closer

Could Westminster’s rejection of a tax on coffee cups be seen as an opportunity by ministers in Holyrood? David Burrows reports.

A charge on disposable cups in Scotland has moved a step closer after the government agreed “in principle” to the idea. However, the commitment – part of a deal struck between the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens for the 2019-20 budget – comes just a month after a major coffee cup recycling initiative was launched in Glasgow. So is it best to wait and see if this works before punting out another Pigouvian tax?

Those behind the so-called “Cup Movement” – including Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Paper Cup Recycling and Recovery Group (PCRRG) – have urged ministers to wait and see whether the scheme works before looking at any form of taxation.

Coffee cup recycling rates have increased from one in 400 to one in 25, according to PCRRG figures published last year. And there are now more than 4,500 cup recycling points. “It is vital that industry plays its part in supporting behaviour change activities to help us get cups collected for recycling,” said Neil Whittall, the PCRRG chairman, at the launch.

Scotland consumes an estimated 500m of the throwaway items every year, 95m of those in Glasgow. Research has shown that single-use cups make up 48% of Glasgow’s drinks waste. Launched in January and 18 months in the making, the Cup Movement has been billed as a “truly collaborative initiative”.

PCRRG members including Costa, McDonald’s UK, Greggs, Starbucks UK and Pret A Manger will put new collection points in place. The recycling specialist Simply Cups is involved, but it isn’t yet clear how or where the cups will be recycled. The longer-term aspiration is to encourage consumers to “switch to reusable containers”.

Still, support for a so-called “latte levy” has been growing steadily, and a recycling rate of just 4% is unlikely to impress ministers keen to support action to reduce packaging waste. The considerable benefits of the 5p plastic bag charge – which will soon rise to 10p – will also have encouraged policymakers to think bigger. Or some of them, at least.

In Westminster, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, has ruled out a tax on cups for now. But that could be seen as opportunity in Holyrood: the Scottish government is keen to be seen as a pioneer of resource management. It has led the charge on separate collections of food waste and consistent collections of recyclables at the kerbside. Come 2021, landfilling of some materials will also be banned, while a target to cut food waste by 33% by 2025 was the first of its kind in Europe. Scotland is also one step ahead of England when it comes to a deposit return scheme.

A tax on cups would therefore seem like a logical, vote-winning step. The Greens estimate that a 25p charge could raise between £50m and £200m, which could be channelled back to local authorities. And now the government seems pretty much convinced it’s a good idea too. Environmental charges “have a role to play in influencing consumer behaviour”, said Derek Mackay, the cabinet secretary for finance, economy and fair work, in a letter to the Scottish Green Party, and the government “agree in principle to the use of charging in relation to disposable drinks cups, alongside other measures to promote the changes that we want and need to see in Scotland”.

The deal struck with the Scottish Greens does not guarantee a cup charge, however. Any decision will probably be delayed until later this year, when the government’s expert panel will provide its advice on how to deal with single-use items such as cups and straws. Proposals will then be brought forward in 2019-20 for legislation. If it’s a tax, it will need approval from Westminster. However, this stage could be sidestepped by using existing powers to introduce a levy based on the plastic bag charge.

“The UK government failed to introduce its much-hyped coffee cup tax, so Scotland has a chance to lead the way and show we are serious about tackling the scourge of plastic pollution,” said the Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell. “Being a leader on this issue is not only the right thing to do but it will create opportunities for innovative Scottish businesses to develop sustainable alternatives.”

However, opinion among foodservice businesses appears divided – at least according to a recent report “from the street” by the BBC. A lot will rest on the finer details of how the levy will work – including the businesses expected to take part – and those all important recommendations from the expert panel (which, perhaps notably, doesn’t include any experts from environmental campaigning groups). Until then, the first latte levy remains a possibility rather than a reality.

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