Reusable incentives could slash disposable coffee cup waste

Free reusables, 25p charge on disposables and green slogans in cafes could cut some of 2.5bn cups thrown away each year, finds study

Incentives such as a tax on disposable coffee cups or free reuseable replacements could help cut the number thrown away in the UK every year by between 50m and 300m, according to new research.

An estimated 2.5bn throwaway coffee cups are used in the UK every year by consumers buying coffee from chains and cafes, creating approximately 25,000 tonnes of waste.

Significantly, the research found that while a 25p charge on disposable cups increased the use of reusable coffee cups, a discount on reusable coffee cups had no impact at all on their usage.

The study was carried out between September and December 2016 by Cardiff University on behalf of the coffee roaster Bewley’s, testing a range of measures that could encourage the use of reusable coffee cups. A dozen university and business cafes tracked the use of reusable cups by their customers over a four-month period after the measures were introduced.

The research found that financial incentives, reusable alternatives, and clear messaging reminding customers of the environmental impact of single-use coffee cups all had a direct impact on consumer behaviour.

Overall, a 25p charge on disposable cups increased the use of reusable coffee cups by 3.4%, environmental messaging in cafes increased the use of reusable coffee cups by 2.3%, the availability of reusable cups led to an increase of 2.5% and the distribution of free reusable cups led to a further increase of 4.3 %.

In one cafe, customers’ usage of reusable cups soared from 5.1% to 17.4% when all the measures were in place. “While the increases for individual measures were modest, the greatest behavioural change was when the measures were combined,” said Prof Wouter Poortinga of Cardiff University, who led the research.

Environment minister Thérèse Coffey
The environment minister Thérèse Coffey said coffee chains were doing enough voluntarily without imposing a 5p charge on cups. Photograph: Jon Super/The Guardian

“Our results show that, on average, the use of reusable coffee cups could be increased by up to 12.5 percentage points with a combination of measures. With this in mind, the UK’s usage of an estimated 2.5bn disposable coffee cups each year could be cut by up to 300m coffee cups.”

Every day in the UK, up to 7m coffee cups are thrown away, with less than 1% of these cups (only one in 400 coffee cups) thought to be recycled. The main challenge to date has been the plastic film lining the paper cups, which means they are rarely recyclable.

Ministers have already rejected campaigners’ calls for a charge on the 2.5bn disposable coffee cups thrown away each year because they believe coffee shop chains are already taking enough action to cut down waste. The environment minister Thérèse Coffey told the Liberal Democrats, who have urged the government to impose a 5p charge similar to that levied on plastic bags, that industry and chains were already doing enough voluntarily.

Meanwhile, a new scheme to boost disposable coffee cup recycling will be launched next week in the City of London in an attempt to prevent 5m cups a year from the Square Mile ending up in landfill. The City of London Corporation, in conjunction with Network Rail, coffee chains, and some employers, are introducing dedicated coffee-cup recycling facilities in offices, shops and streets.

Contributor

Rebecca Smithers Consumer affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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