Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups Contents


The UK coffee industry is growing rapidly. Almost half of all coffees and hot drinks are now sold in disposable cups. There are more than four times as many coffee shops today as there were in the year 2000, and 1 in 5 of us visit a coffee shop every day. Coffee is also widely available in supermarkets and garages.

Disposable coffee cups are made from paper and lined with plastic, which makes them waterproof. This plastic lining cannot be removed by most recycling facilities. Once used, the paper part of the cup is usually contaminated by the cup’s contents. There is no UK or European market for contaminated paper food packaging. 2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away each year in the UK - enough to stretch around the world roughly five and a half times - but less than 1 in 400 - just 0.25% - are recycled. Around 500,000 cups are littered every day–an unsightly and damaging blight on our environment. Since litter encourages more littering, this creates a vicious cycle.

Our inquiry has been guided by the Waste Hierarchy - reduce, reuse, recycle. The most desirable method of waste management is the prevention of waste. We also took account of the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle; that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it. The Waste Hierarchy and the Polluter Pays principle are enshrined in EU law, but are also internationally recognised sustainable development principles. The UK Government has commitments under the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development to responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), as well as protecting life below water (Goal 14) and life on land (Goal 15) by 2030.

Most people mistakenly think that that disposable cups are widely recycled, and dispose of them in on-street recycling bins. This consumer confusion shows that retailers have failed to be clear with consumers about coffee cups. There is also a lack of infrastructure to recycle them. Disposing of coffee cups in on-street bins creates a costly waste contamination problem for local authorities. This adds to the financial burden on taxpayers, who already cover 90% of the cost of collecting, sorting and disposing of waste coffee cups.

Some cup manufacturers and coffee shops have made voluntary commitments to recycle coffee cups. However, the various commitments are inconsistent, and lack quantifiable targets and structure. There is no excuse for the reluctance we have seen from Government and industry to address coffee cup waste. To kick start consumer awareness, we recommend that the Government sets a target that all single use coffee cups should be recycled by 2023. If this target is not achieved, the Government should ban disposable coffee cups.

If more people used reusable coffee cups there would be less waste, which would reduce the burden on local authorities. This would cut costs for coffee retailers, who would need to purchase and dispose of fewer cups. We heard that large coffee retailers offer a 25p discount if customers bring their own cups, but awareness and uptake is very low (around 1%). We heard evidence that consumers are more responsive to a charge than a discount and that a charge on disposable cups could reduce use by up to 30%. We therefore recommend that the Government introduces a minimum 25p levy on disposable cups. The revenue should be used to invest in reprocessing facilities and “binfrastructure” to ensure that the remaining disposable cups are recycled.

Coffee cups are the tip of an iceberg of issues around packaging recycling. Through the Producer Responsibility Obligations, businesses currently contribute only around 10% of the cost of waste disposal, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill for the rest. To respect the polluter pays principle, the UK should make producers and retailers of disposable coffee cups more financially responsible for their waste production. We recommend that the Government introduce a varied compliance fee structure that rewards design for recyclability and the use of recycled and compostable packaging material and raises costs on packaging that is difficult to recycle. We also believe the de minimis level for companies covered by PRO schemes should be reduced. This would give the industry a greater financial incentive to produce and use only packaging that can be recycled within the UK’s current recycling infrastructure.

22 December 2017