Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups Contents

4Coffee Cup Waste Prevention and Solutions

Incentivising the Use of Reusable Cups

56.Throughout this inquiry, we have heard that preventing the use of disposable packaging is preferable to recycling according to the ‘Waste Hierarchy’. The waste hierarchy ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment. DEFRA’s guidance for businesses’ use of the waste hierarchy states:

It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use, then recycling, then recovery and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill.)68

57.Keep Scotland Beautiful explained how the waste hierarchy relates to coffee cups:

We believe that members of the public believe that standard coffee cups are recyclable and that recycling equates to sustainability. Therefore, depositing their cup in a recycling bin is seen as ‘doing the right thing’. The difficulty with the continued promotion of the recycling message, instead of promoting reduction (the top of the waste hierarchy) is that this is unlikely to reduce the use of disposable products.69

58.There are many reusable coffee cups available on the market for consumers, some of which are coffee shop branded and sold in-store. We have also heard that disposable cups are often used in offices and workplaces, where it would be easy to keep a reusable cup.70

59.Several UK coffee shops, including Costa, Starbucks, Pret A Manger, Café Nero and Paul, offer customers a 25p discount for using a reusable cup. However, just 1–2% of sales receive this discount.71 There are several reasons why this could be the case. Firstly, it could be because few people know about the offers. Gavin Ellis, co-founder of environmental charity Hubbub, explained “First, I would say that there is a difference between offering something and actively pushing and promoting it.” Mr Ellis went on to explain that people who do not work in the coffee shop industry are generally unaware of the available discounts.72

60.Second, the low take-up rate could be because the discount is not big enough to change behaviour. Richard McIlwain from Keep Britain Tidy told us that in order to be more effective, the discount would have to be around 50p:

We polled 2,000 people in a YouGov survey to look at what additional [money] they would be willing to pay to continue using a disposable cup, as opposed to having to take their refillable cup [ … ] some of the feedback we have had shows that once you get to 50p and beyond very, very few people are willing to pay that differential to carry on using a disposable cup.73

On 6th December 2017, Pret A Manger announced that they will be raising their discount for using reusable cups from 25p to 50p in the first week of 2018.74

61.Third, it could be because discounts are not an effective way to change behaviour. Research by Professor Wouter Poortinga, Environmental Psychologist at Cardiff University found that, in line with ‘prospect theory’, charges are much more effective than discounts.75 A charge creates an incentive for consumers to find a more financially sustainable alternative, reducing the amount of disposable packaging used. This has been demonstrated by the success of the plastic carrier bag charge which saw an 83% reduction in use of plastic bags in the first year (2015 – 2016).76 In much the same way that people now often carry a bag-for-life to avoid the 5p bag charge, we heard that there would be times when people could plan ahead and bring a reusable cup, for instance, on the way to work or throughout the working day when coffee purchasing is more habitual than impulsive.77 A charge on disposable coffee cups would therefore encourage the use of reusable cups, or ceramic mugs, in offices and workplaces.

62.Professor Wouter Poortinga’s research suggests that a 25p charge on disposable coffee cups could lead to a reduction in use of disposable cups of between 50 - 300 million per year.78 Irish Environment Minister Denis Naughten recently announced that the Irish Government was considering introducing a charge on disposable coffee cups.79 Last year DEFRA said that there were “no plans” for a coffee cup charge.

63.However, Professor Poortinga has argued that a disposable cup charge could be a popular environmental policy, particularly following the success of the plastic bag charge. Poortinga explained this ‘policy spillover’ effect:

Our research found evidence for what we termed policy spillover. Not only did people become more supportive of a plastic bag charge after it was introduced, they also became more supportive of other charges to reduce waste. In particular those participants who increased their support for the plastic bag charge also increased their support for other charges.80

64.Several industry stakeholders were concerned that a coffee cup charge would add an “unwelcome tax burden on UK consumers.”81 However, a YouGov survey recently found that 3 in 4 people across Britain would support a charge on disposable coffee cups.82 All UK taxpayers currently bear 90% of the cost of packaging waste disposal whether or not they purchase coffee. A small levy on coffee cups would mean that local authorities would have more resources to spend on other priorities as the total amount of disposable coffee cups contaminating on-street recycling bins would decrease. Eunomia Research and Consulting also emphasised the important distinction between taxpayers and consumers:

The distinction between citizens and consumers is an important one. You may use no beverage containers in a year but you are still paying through your council tax for the collection and onward processing of those items.83

65.A significant amount of revenue could be generated by a 25p disposable cup charge. Eunomia Research and Consulting have estimated a range of potential revenue totals that could be raised by a 25p charge. Eunomia estimate that a charge would lead to a 30% reduction in the use of disposable cups, generating £438 million of revenue.84 Eunomia’s findings are backed up by Professor Poortinga’s that, if a charge was supplemented by the distribution of free reusable cups, there would be around a 30% reduction in the use of coffee cups.

66.Research therefore suggests that a charge could lead to around 750 million fewer disposable cups being littered, incinerated or sent to landfill, and an estimated £438 million of revenue.85 Careful and transparent management of this revenue would be essential. We have heard several suggestions that it could be used to fund better recycling facilities and binfrastructure for the remaining disposable cups in use.86

67.In accordance with the waste hierarchy, we would like to see a reduction in the use of disposable coffee cups. A culture of using a reusable cup wherever possible should be encouraged to reduce disposable cup waste. Although some coffee shops have introduced discounts for customers bringing their own reusable cup, awareness and uptake of these offers has been low. We have heard that charges are more effective than discounts, and the use of a charge on environmentally damaging packaging has already seen success through the plastic carrier bag charge. A “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups would remove some of the financial burden from local authorities and council taxpayers.

68.The growing demand for coffee means that the Government should act urgently to tackle avoidable coffee cup waste. The charge on plastic bags prompted consumers to change their habits, reducing plastic bag use by over 83% in the first year. Additionally, the plastic bag charge saw an increased level of support for further charges to reduce waste. We therefore recommend that the Government introduces a minimum 25p levy on disposable cups, to be paid by the consumer on top of the price of the coffee. Coffee shops already reduce the price of their drinks to reflect the discount that they are already happy to offer their customers and consequently they could absorb some of the “latte levy.” The revenue generated from producer responsibility compliance should be collected and managed by a central body and used to fund recycling infrastructure for the remaining cups in use. As the recycling rate for coffee cups improves, the levy could be lowered year on year. This would encourage good management of the revenue from the levy.

Improving On-the-Go Recycling

69.The majority of disposable coffee cups are consumed and disposed of ‘on-the-go’ with very few making it back to the household waste stream. Throughout this inquiry, we have heard that there is a lack of ‘on-the-go’ recycling facilities for packaging used outside the home, despite the high level of on-the-go consumption in the UK. During our last evidence session, Dr Coffey, told us:

The UK has got the highest on-the-go consumption pattern. It is a thing that has evolved in relatively recent years.87

70.Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University, Wouter Poortinga emphasised the way in which on-the-go consumption effects recycling rates for coffee cups:

It is often said that it is the on-the-go nature of coffee drinking which is the problem. I think it is one of the biggest factors in the low recycling rates … there is no practical or convenient way of recycling it [disposable coffee cup] at the moment.88

71.Members of the coffee shop and packaging industries have expressed a desire to ensure the current polyethylene lined cups, and other forms of disposable on-the-go packaging, are more widely recyclable. Martin Kersh from the Foodservice Packaging Association told us:

The issue for us is not so much the micro issue about recycling cups, which is very important, but attacking it on a bigger scale, that is, all of on-the-go.89

72.However, we have heard that current industry initiatives to improve the recycling infrastructure for coffee cups are unlikely to capture coffee cups in the places where they are often disposed of. The ACE UK (Association of Beverage Cartons for the Environment) recycling scheme for coffee cups, which was announced by the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG) on 10th October 2017, enables people to recycle their disposable cups at one of 382 bring banks in 97 local authorities. ACE UK are also hoping to include coffee cups in local authority household kerbside collection in the future.90 In our evidence session on 10th October we asked Costa Coffee, signatory of the agreement, how the ACE UK recycling system would work.

Oliver Rosevear: So, bring-backs are your sort of bring-back clothing banks that you have at recycling sites. It allows—

Q71 Chair: Yes, but you have to bring it into a bank. You have to collect your coffee cups.

Oliver Rosevear: You do.

Chair: It is not like taking a quilt or a blanket. It is a coffee cup.

Oliver Rosevear: I agree but, as that programme expands and that beverage carton system expands, it also looks at kerbside recycling.91

73.We asked representatives from local authorities about the feasibility of including coffee cups in kerbside recycling. We heard that the given the small number of coffee cup recycling facilities available in the UK and the small chance that consumers would collect and bring their cups home, including disposable cups in kersbide collection would be unlikely to increase coffee cup recycling rates. Lee Marshall from the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee told us:

As an organisation we have liaised and engaged with the industry and the discussions we have had are very quickly that it is the on-the-go areas that need the attention, not the kerbside side at the moment because the coffee cups are not finding their way, generally, back into the house and are not in any of the kerbside schemes. There are probably bigger, better wins that can be had in terms of coffee cups before we start looking at the kerbside arena.92

74.Dr Coffey told us that she recognised the public demand for greater provision of on-the-go recycling facilities:

People do want to be able to recycle anywhere and everywhere. So that is where some of the litter strategy comes in. I recognise it is not that but it is about working with council and businesses about improving ‘binfrastructure’ in order to make it as easy as possible for people to do these things.93

75.The provision of on-street recycling bins is at the discretion of local councils, and their availability throughout the UK is patchy and inconsistent, due to the relatively recent phenomenon of on-the-go consumption and the issues created by contaminated waste. Less than half of all local councils provide on-the-go recycling bins.94 Representatives from local authorities told us about the lack of provision of on-the-go recycling facilities and the difficulties that arise from collecting waste for recycling from on-street bins. Lee Marshall, Chief Executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee told us:

On-the-go recycling is difficult generally. There are not many local authorities that have on-the-go recycling schemes and in the ones that do, the quality of material they get is very poor. People are interested in recycling and have got recycling to a point but not necessarily enough that they are prepared to take the time and effort, on the go when we are all busy and rushing, to put the things in the right places, which then causes problems down the line at the sorting facilities and reprocessors.95

76.The Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) which is partly funded by DEFRA, provides guidance for local councils on the provision of on-the-go and on-street recycling facilities.96 However, as we have heard, providing on-the-go recycling is currently a financial and logistical burden for councils due to the rate of contamination found in on-street bins. As all food packaging waste is classed as contaminated due to its contact with food, disposable coffee cups often contaminate local authority on-street recycling bins.

77.We have also heard that disposable coffee cups can be recycled if they are made into non-food packaging, such as high quality paper or reinforced cardboard. This suggests that there is a need to provide on-street recycling bins, not just for coffee cups, but for all types of food packaging waste to ensure that it is effectively captured ‘on-the-go’ and transported to appropriate facilities for recycling. Richard McIlwain from Keep Britain Tidy suggested that the revenue from a charge on disposable cups could be hypothecated to fund on-the-go recycling facilities:

There is a role to have a discussion around things like extended producer responsibility and say, if we think on-the-go collection of coffee cups has to be a thing, how do we support local authorities to finance that? Is there a small element of charge, for instance, that could be applied to a coffee cup that could then be hypothecated—I know the Government does not like to hypothecate money—to support local authorities, who are clearly very hard pressed at the moment struggling with ever tighter budgets.97

78.If many types of food packaging were able to be collected and transported in bulk to appropriate reprocessing facilities, more end markets would be created for food packaging. Martin Kersh from the Foodservice Packaging Association recognised that the “major development” of an on-the-go solution for all packaging would require funding, potentially from producer responsibility reform.98 Equally, diverting revenue from a coffee cup charge would provide a direct funding solution fully in-line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The consumer who chooses to use a disposable cup rather than a reusable one pays a charge to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure to enable it to be recycled.

79.We also heard from Dr Coffey that the Government Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working Group will be looking at the possibility of using revenue from a disposable cup charge to fund more comprehensive on-the-go recycling:

The policy objective for considering the disposable cups I think at the moment would be about how we can get more recycling. It may be that a levy, perhaps a more modest levy could be used directly to improve some of the infrastructure that we have been discussing.99

80.Throughout this inquiry we have heard that on-the-go consumption and the UK’s lack of ‘binfrastructure’ is a significant barrier to coffee cup recycling. We heard similar issues relating to plastic bottles, but the nature of coffee cup waste does not lend itself to a deposit return scheme. Industry initiatives have created a range of bins in which consumers can recycle coffee cups, however none of them address the on-the-go usage of disposable coffee cups. We have also heard that disposable coffee cups and other types of food packaging contaminate on-street recycling bins as they are classified as ‘prohibited material.’ However, there are some end markets developing for disposable coffee cups, suggesting that more research should be done to find similar solutions for various other types of food packaging waste, such as sandwich boxes and hot food containers. Consumers need simple ways of recycling on-the-go food packaging, so the instruction to put it in a dedicated food packaging recycling bin could be easily, and consistently communicated.

81.To ensure that disposable coffee cups and other types of paper food packaging are captured and recycled, the revenue from the 25p coffee cup charge should be used to support local councils to provide food packaging recycling bins and waste management. Disposable food packaging collected in these bins could be recycled in a similar way to the initiatives shown through in-store recycling schemes. A proportion of the revenue could also be used to support a wide-reaching public communications campaign that would provide easily digestible information on best-practice recycling while on-the-go, therefore reducing litter and improving recycling of all types of food packaging waste.


69 Keep Scotland Beautiful (PKG0072A)

70 Professor Wouter Poortinga (PKG0026A), Q20

71 Costa Coffee (PKG0107A), Starbuck (PKG0089A)

72 Q12, Q13

73 Q13, Q14

75 Professor Wouter Poortinga (PKG0026A), Q17

77 Q20

78 Professor Wouter Poortinga (PKG0026A)

80 As above.

81 Costa Coffee (PKG0107A)

83 Q241

84 Eunomia Research & Consulting (PKG0086A)

85 As above.

86 Q42, Q535

87 Q397

88 Q2

89 Q66

91 Q70, Q71

92 Q392

93 Q478

94 46% of local councils provide on-the-go recycling facilities. RECycling of Used Plastics Limited, 2017 RECOUP Household Collection Survey (June 2017)

95 Q391

97 Q42

98 Q152

99 Q535




22 December 2017