Taxing coffee cups is not the answer: here's why

Copying the 5p bag tax model with coffee cups is unlikely to work. Instead the onus should be on designing new cups and improved recycling

The ubiquitous takeaway paper cup, with its plastic lid and cardboard sleeve, has transformed the coffee industry.

Drinking hot beverages on the go has become so popular that UK coffee shops hand out about 7m cups a day, working out at more than 2.5bn a year. Yet reportedly fewer than one in 400 cups is recycled.

The design of these cups – lined with polyethylene to prevent the paper going soggy – makes recycling difficult and costly; the cups cannot be recycled with other paper waste as they require specialist processing to separate the plastic lining.

Growing awareness around this problem prompted the Liberal Democrats to call for a tax on coffee cups, like the 5p levy on plastic carrier bags. Tim Farron, leader of the Lib Dems, said a cup tax would trigger a “culture change”, encouraging people to adopt reusable cups. The government rejected the call, claiming coffee chains were already doing enough to tackle the problem.

Not everyone outside of Westminister was convinced by a tax either. The plastic bag charge has been successful because people have easily adapted to carrying reusable bags with them, but reusable coffee cups are bulkier and require cleaning, says Wouter Poortinga, professor of environmental psychology at Cardiff University. “We should also focus on other instruments we could use – like education or providing an alternative,” he says.

What’s more, with takeaway coffee being an indulgence, consumers may simply not notice a small price increase.

Whether reusable cups are more environmentally friendly than paper cups is another sticking point. Despite some coffee shops selling reusable plastic cups and offering a discount for customers using one, there is a lack of lifecycle analysis on whether they offer a reduced environmental footprint.

Coffee cups

This data can help inform sustainable purchasing decisions. Thicker plastic bags, known as bags for life, for example, require more carbon to produce than carrier bags. As such, they need to be used 14 times to become the more environmentally friendly alternative they are marketed as.

“Nobody who manufactures a reusable cup has told me carbon-wise what that is the equivalent to in paper cups,” says Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association and executive board member of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group.

While he would not discourage coffee shops from selling reusables, Kersh says it would be wrong for people to buy a reusable cup and then only use it once or twice.

The solution

James Capel, chief executive of waste management company Simply Waste, believes the industry should focus its energy on recycling existing cups more efficiently. In 2013, the UK’s first two specialist plants for recycling coffee cups opened. The following year, Capel co-founded Simply Cups to help businesses segregate and transport their cups to these plants.

Simply Cups is currently working with Costa, Pret a Manger and McDonald’s, collecting cups from a few of their stores on trial basis. Last month, Costa announced it was expanding its coffee cup recycling trial scheme, collecting used coffee cups in its 2,000 stores, which are collected by waste management company Veolia to be recycled in a specialist plant.


While Costa’s move is a step in the right direction, people who buy a takeaway coffee will not necessarily return to a Costa store to recycle the cup. Only a reported 14% of Costa’s coffee cups were recycled during the pilot programme across 45 stores in London and Manchester.

Having coffee cup recycling points in town centres is another possible solution. Simply Cups partnered with Hubbub, an environmental charity, to launch a three-month coffee cup recycling scheme in Manchester. Hubbub has installed large coffee cup bins in the city centre and Simply Cups collects them to be recycled. Waitrose, Greggs, KFC and other high street coffee retailers have given financial support to the campaign.

Yet there still needs to be greater cooperation and investment from businesses to solve this problem, says Capel. “It tends to be the smaller businesses that will just get on with it, but bigger businesses tend to drag their heels a bit more,” he says. “When you’re talking about supply chains and different people being involved, it can be difficult communicating that message all the way through an organisation – and it can also add some costs.”


Sarah Shearman

The GuardianTramp

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