Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups Contents


1.This is one of two reports published as part of our Disposable Packaging Inquiry. This inquiry was originally launched in the 2016 - 2017 Parliamentary session and closed when Parliament was dissolved for the 2017 General Election. We decided to relaunch the inquiry in September 2017. Written evidence accepted for the previous inquiry was brought forward for consideration in the relaunched inquiry. Our examination of coffee cups and plastic bottles highlighted the difficulty of recycling packaging on-the-go. We also discovered issues specific to coffee cups which required separate analysis and recommendations, which are set out in this report.

2.The UK coffee shop industry is growing rapidly. Almost half of all 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 people visit a coffee shop on a daily basis.1 However, despite a common belief to the contrary, almost all disposable cups are not recycled due to their tightly bonded plastic lining which is difficult to remove, and the challenges of recycling packaging contaminated by beverages. This results in at least 2.5 billion coffee cups being thrown away each year in the UK; enough to stretch around the planet roughly five and a half times. Some disposable cups are littered–an unsightly and damaging blight on our environment which itself encourages more littering.

3.The 2016 BBC documentary ‘War on Waste’ brought to light the challenges of coffee cup recycling, prompting a growing public interest in the issue. Our inquiry built upon the findings in the documentary by examining consumer perception of the environmental impact of coffee cups. We chose to focus our inquiry partly on coffee cups because of their low recycling rate and the tangibility of this environmental issue. We were told that the total annual coffee cup waste in the UK is enough to fill London’s Royal Albert Hall.2

4.We also focused on industry actions to reduce coffee cup waste. Some cup manufacturers and coffee shops have recently made voluntary commitments or provide in-store recycling, some of which were introduced during the course of the inquiry. However, despite having spent years talking about the problem, industry’s voluntary commitments have been inconsistent and ineffective. They have failed to do anything which has effectively tackled the problem. We reject the suggestion, made by some in the industry, that this issue is unimportant or that action to reduce other areas of environmental impact means it can be put in the “too difficult” box.

5.Coffee cups are one element of disposable packaging waste. The Committee has found it helpful to use them as a starting point for discussion of wider recycling issues, in particular packaging producer responsibility obligations. Our focus on coffee cups and plastic bottles also revealed how recycling is often hampered by on-the-go consumption and disposal; an issue given careful consideration throughout the inquiry and in our final reports.

6.The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found on our website. We held four public hearings with academics, NGOs, coffee trade representatives, packaging producers, local authority representatives and Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In addition, we received 122 pieces of written evidence which are published on our website. A full list of witnesses can be found at the end of this report. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence. We would also like to thank Louise Smith and Elena Ares from the House of Commons Library for providing research assistance throughout this inquiry.

Progress during this Inquiry

7.During this inquiry, both Government and industry made several announcements about this issue:

a)In September 2017, Selfridges announced that they had formed a partnership with cup recycling plant James Cropper to convert disposable coffee cups into Selfridge’s yellow shopping bags. Each bag will contain 20% cup fibre, and one large bag will contain the equivalent of one disposable cup. Bags can then be recycled in ordinary paper mills.3

b)On 2nd October DEFRA established the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working group to look at specific measures that can reduce litter and improve recycling and reuse of packaging.4 The working group has begun by looking at measures for drinks containers, such as deposit return schemes and will publish its findings shortly. For its next piece of work, the working group will look at coffee cups. Dr Coffey told us that the group’s terms of reference for coffee cups will now include “how we can enhance consumer understanding of what can be recycled, and how, including on-pack labelling.”5 We welcome this development in the focus of the working group.

c)On 10th October 2017, the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group announced a partnership with the Alliance of Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) to incorporate disposable cups into ACE UK bring banks for drinks cartons.6 The scheme currently covers 97 local authorities, with more being added in early 2018. ACE UK is also working to include disposable cups in local authority kerbside collections. This partnership also brought with it the announcement of a third recycling facility for coffee cups within the UK; ACE UK’s plant in Halifax.

d)On 24th October 2017, DEFRA announced that maximum litter fines will almost double to £150 from April 2018 and new fines will be introduced for owners of vehicles from which litter is thrown.7

e)On 22nd November 2017, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt. Hon Phillip Hammond MP, announced in the Autumn Budget that the Government would “investigate how the tax systems and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste.”8

1 Allegra Strategies, Project Café UK 2016

2 Local Government Association (PKG0076A), Frugalpac (PKG0050A). Written evidence accepted as part of the original Packaging Inquiry launched in the 2015 – 2017 Parliamentary Session is marked A, and evidence accepted as part of the relaunched inquiry is marked B.

5 Q454

8 House of Commons, Autumn Budget Statement, (Hansard, 22nd November 2017, c.1050)

22 December 2017