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March ’18 Editorial comment: There has to be a better way to deal with cups

March ’18 Editorial comment: There has to be a better way to deal with cups

This Editorial comment  first appeared in the March 18 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read more informative articles in the January and future issues of C&CI.

In my comment in the January 2018 issue of C&CI I looked at the issue of disposable cup waste in the coffee sector. I described it as a scandal, which it is for an industry that prides itself on being a leader when it comes to sustainability. In this issue we also take a look at the same subject and at a proposal for what has neatly been described as a ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups. It was proposed by the Environmental Audit Committee in the UK, which has been investigating the scale of the problem and taking evidence on potential solutions.

Demand is growing in Europe and in the US for sustainable solutions to be developed for cup waste. In the UK alone every day up to seven million coffee cups are thrown away with less than 1 per cent of them recycled. Worldwide, many billions of cups that cannot be recycled because of the dearth of recycling facilities that can handle them are sent to landfill every year. In theory, disposable coffee cups are recyclable, but most are not recycled because the plastic (polyethylene) liner is tightly bonded to the cup and there are very few facilities that can handle them. In the UK, for instance, there are only three facilities that can split the paper and plastic components of coffee cups for recycling.

Overall the issue seems to be taken much more seriously in the UK and Europe than it does in the US, where god knows how many billions of cups are sent to landfill. But is a levy the best way to proceed? James Hoffman – the former World Barista Champion and founder of Square Mile Coffee in the UK – addressed this issue in one of his excellent, thoughtful blogs. On the face of it, he said, the idea of a tax could work. A similar scheme with supermarkets/ groceries, with a 5p or 10c fee per plastic bag, has been incredibly successful, although there are some important differences between this scheme and what the Environmental Audit Committee was proposing that I can’t go into here because of space. As Jim noted, other schemes mentioned in the report produced by the committee suggest charging a deposit, rather than a tax, an idea he was more comfortable with. “I have grave concerns about a levy as large as 25p. This represents a likely increase in cost >10 per cent. It also assumes that demand for coffee, especially premium/specialty coffee, is fixed. I do not believe this to be the case,” said Jim. “I believe that – especially at a time of economic uncertainty – we would see a negative impact on consumption.

“The committee believes that charging a fee is more effective than offering a discount,” he wrote. “As much as it pains me, I have to agree here. Pushing re-usables as the only answer is problematic for me in a lot of ways. There are hygiene issues. Standardization will be a problem. Coffee shops sell by liquid volume, mostly using the vessel as the measure. If people are bringing whatever they have to hand, how would portion control work? Reusable cups are, for the most part, inconvenient to carry around. And last but not least, takeaway sales are vital to independent coffee businesses. Most lack sufficient capital when they start. Reducing takeaway sales, as a whole, would be brutal and destructive to many independent cafes.”

So what does he propose? Jim would like to see every disposable cup carrying disposal information on it. It should state clearly if, where and how a cup can be recycled. He’d also like to continue to incentivize cafes and customers to encourage reuse of cups and suitable reusable cups. To do that he proposes removing VAT on reusable cups, that meet a threshold of sustainability; and taxing the cups at the point of sale from the manufacturer. He’d also like to see better recycling infrastructure to allow more cups to be recycled, and the money from any tax could be used to offer a small refund on a takeaway cup when returned to a dedicated collection point. This would offer an incentive to people to dispose of them properly. Lastly, he says, manufacturers should be encouraged to develop better alternatives to what they currently offer. With this point I’m wholly in agreement. Better cups are surely the answer in the long-term and, as I noted in January, what it really needs is for one of the big coffee chains to work with a manufacturer and introduce a genuinely recyclable cup. Who’s going to be the first to do so?■ C&CI

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