Plastic bags, paper cups and Pigouvian taxes

Will a tax on disposable items be Coffey’s cup of tea?

Hold the front page: the government has met – nay, exceeded – a waste target. Last month, DEFRA published data on plastic bag use. In the first six months of the bag tax in England, consumption has fallen to about 500m. That puts us on course to use about 1 billion bags this year – down from the 7 billion issued by seven main retailers in 2014. Hence claims that the tax has effectively cut consumption by 85%.

Announcing the introduction of the charge for plastic bags in October, the then resource minister, Rory Stewart, said: “We can expect a significant reduction in England, possibly by as much as 80% in supermarkets and 50% on the high street.”

Well done, Rory. Not quite: Thérèse Coffey replaced him during the recent cabinet reshuffle. “Taking 6 billion plastic bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us,” Coffey chirped.

It was a pleasant way for her to start the new job. But we must not become complacent, she added. “There is always more we can all do to reduce waste and recycle what we use.”

Is Coffey hinting at a cup tax? Or is that putting two and two together and coming up with five (pence)?

Is that a tantalising hint that Coffey is looking at whether the charge could work for other disposable items? Or is that putting two and two together and coming up with five (pence)?

In March, Stewart suggested a charge on disposable cups might be a “very good” idea – but he was quickly shot down by his civil servants. Scotland – a pioneer in progressive waste policies – is also looking at where it could implement similar Pigouvian taxes.

It would be surprising if DEFRA isn’t at least assessing the possibility of another tax (the levy on sugary drinks means the Conservatives have broken their manifesto promise not to introduce any new taxes).

Jamie Oliver played no small part in that decision, and his fellow celebrity chef-cum-campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has made paper cup waste his next target.

HFW isn’t calling for a tax. He wants coffee shop chains – principally Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero – to use cups that are actually recyclable. Looking at the claims made on their websites, it might appear that all is OK in the world of paper cup recycling.

Costa has the “brass neck” to describe its receptacles as “eco-friendly”, explained HFW in the latest episode of his “War on Waste” series for BBC1. “Under close scrutiny and interrogation all these claims start to fall down,” he added.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wants coffee shop chains – principally Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero – to use cups that are actually recyclable.

Starbucks, meanwhile, is “uselessly vague”. “We’re working on a solution to the challenges of paper cup waste,” says Starbucks on its site, adding that “paper cups make up a small proportion of the waste produced in our stores”.

HFW fails to mention that the vast majority of the cups are taken away: their portability certainly doesn’t help those trying to capture and recycle them. Where they end up depends on availability of bins and collection systems as well as consumer ethics and education.

On the latter, he does have a point. The vast majority of paper cups are difficult to recycle. It’s possible, but while more and more are ending up in a specialist processing plant via the Simply Cups scheme the number amounts to a tiny fraction of the 2.5 billion cups used every year.

Shouldn’t there be a label on cups stating that they are “not recyclable”, he asked Starbucks (the only company to agree to an interview)? Or why not use a new cup that is, apparently, easily recyclable?

Starbucks has now said it’s interested in testing the Frugalpac cup. The man behind the invention, Martin Myerscough, claims paper mills and reprocessors can work with the cup, given that the plastic lining is more easily separated from the paper. It’s also lower in carbon (though the full life analysis is not being made available).

Given that it ticks all the right boxes, the sticking point could be the price. Which brings us back to a tax. A 5p charge on bags has shown that small actions can make a big difference. If Coffey does have cups in her sights, then it will at the very least keep the headline-makers happy.

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