Is a takeaway cup ‘tax’ the best way of cutting waste?
Bronwyn Linkhorn chats with KeepCup’s managing director, Abigail Forsyth, about whether more can be done to cut waste in the coffee industry.
For years, the subject of single-use takeaway cups has divided opinions.
In many countries, single-use packaging is an essential part of daily life, enabling endless convenience at the expense of the environment.
In other countries, where sustainability has been put in the spotlight, the takeaway coffee cup has become a symbol of choking oceans and mountainous landfills. With as many as 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups being thrown away in the UK alone in 2020, it’s no surprise that there are major concerns about the future of takeaway coffee.
Subsequently, there have been various proposals on how best to handle and reduce the resulting waste. Some people feel that the emergence of recyclable and compostable materials has solved the issue, while others feel that reusable cups are the way forward.
However, a lot of misinformation exists around the recycling of takeaway coffee cups. Most crucially, many people are totally unaware that most takeaway cups – even those made of paper and cardboard – contain an inner plastic lining which prevents the cups from leaking.
Effectively, this means that these cups can’t just be broken down and repurposed. The lining needs to be melted down first – an energy-intensive process that’s far from sustainable.
In many places, there simply isn’t adequate infrastructure in place to facilitate the correct recycling of takeaway, and as a result, many tonnes end up in landfills each year. In fact, even the UK has just two specialist recycling facilities that are able to process coffee cups properly.
Can a takeaway cup charge really reduce waste?
Some sustainability advocates are pushing for a new approach: charging customers for takeaway cups. Often compared with the plastic bag charge found around the world, the idea is to incentivise consumers to use reusable alternatives, saving them money and cutting down on waste at the same time.
Despite years’ worth of rumours, there’s currently no official “takeaway cup tax” in the UK. However, a ‘latte levy’ is set to be introduced in the Republic of Ireland later this year. This levy will add a 20p (US 0.23 cents) charge on every disposable coffee cup sold.
According to the country’s Department of the Environment, this is being introduced in a bid to change consumer habits.
Although not yet confirmed, the Scottish Government has also discussed introducing a similar scheme that would see consumers paying an additional 20-25p for takeaway drinks, unless a reusable cup is used.
However, some groups feel that it’s the government’s responsibility to improve recycling infrastructure – and that it’s unfair to burden the consumer with the responsibility of reducing waste.
It’s clear, then, that there are several sides to this argument. On the one hand, some consumers are happy to take it upon themselves to leave less of a harmful footprint on the planet. Conversely, there are those who feel liability lies with governments and large corporations.
There’s also a third stakeholder with a critical role to play. Many coffee shops are now introducing recycling collection points, allowing them to aggregate waste and pass it on to a partner that is capable of doing what consumers can’t on their own.
However, this is unlikely to completely eradicate the waste problem, as consumers often leave the shop with their drinks and are unlikely to return purely to dispose of the cup.
Nevertheless, it’s still vital for coffee shops to play their part. Although the uptake may be lower than desired, it’s important the customers are given the option to recycle their cups properly from the place they purchased the drink.
For any method of waste reduction to work, accessibility and convenience need to be at the forefront of the strategy. However, because of the scale of the problem and the range of stakeholders involved, it seems that for now, there’s no single, simple solution to reducing takeaway coffee cup waste. Ultimately, a combination of multiple approaches is required.
Steps for reducing takeaway cup waste
Abigail Forsyth is the managing director of KeepCup, an Australian company that manufactures a wide range of reusable cups and bottles.
In her opinion, the best approach to reducing coffee cup waste is for governments to introduce legislation that bans single-use cups.
“This would include biodegradables and compostables because they are unnecessary and problematic types of packaging that are really difficult to recycle,” she explains.
However, she adds that consumers also have a massive role to play. Specifically, she says that consumers can best contribute to reducing waste by thinking about the choices they have, like drinking their coffee at the café or using a reusable cup.
In terms of a takeaway cup charge, Abigail feels that it’s a legitimate option if the aim is to draw attention to the issue.
“It’s not about a hard penalty on disposables, but allowing people to recognise that there is a cost both financially and to the environment to using single-use products,” she elaborates. Just reminding people is how you drive the behaviour change.”
Ultimately, she’s of the opinion that it’s not just an awareness issue, as legislation follows change. By putting a charge in place, businesses can drive cultural change and accelerate the enactment of vital legislation.
“We are there and we’ve been speaking about this for years,” she notes. “It’s time for governments to act.”
Furthermore, there remains a need for adequate recycling facilities to be made more readily available outside of coffee shops, which is something that many believe is the best option for reducing waste.
And, if current takeaway coffee cups aren’t able to be recycled, perhaps the best option is to reinvent them entirely.