Wake up and smell the coffee

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

The UK gets through an estimated five billion disposable cups a year, but just a fraction are recycled. Campaigners and consumers want action, but will a new industry manifesto be enough to prevent a tax? David Burrows reports

Positive announcements on waste policy have been hard to come by lately, but Thérèse Coffey managed to bag one within a fortnight of becoming the new waste minister. In the six months since the 5p charge on plastic carriers was introduced in England, consumption has fallen 85%. “Taking six billion plastic bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us,” she said.

Those involved in foodservice packaging are not so sure. With the levy having been so successful (£29m has also been raised for ‘good causes’), the question on politicians’ lips is ‘what next?’. Coffee cups would certainly be on the shortlist: there’s a new litter strategy being developed and coffee cups are hot news.

Experts have put consumption of disposable cups at 2.5 billion a year. It’s a big number. However, Simply Cups, the cup collection and recycling scheme, suggests it could be twice that, says co-founder Peter Goodwin. Less than one in 400 are recycled, he adds.

Taking matters in hand

This statistic led to the celebrity-chef-turned-waste-warrier Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launching a new campaign. “The sorry truth is, next to none of [the cups] are recycled – and the even sorrier fact is that no-one’s taking responsibility for that, least of all the big coffee retailers who have created this takeout trash mountain,” he said.

The story made national newspaper headlines – and the Daily Mail led the charge. “Britain’s rubbish at recycling”, it screamed as its reporter linked coffee cups with stagnating recycling rates. “The problem symbolises the confusion that increasingly surrounds recycling in England, with the public left at a loss about what best to do,” the article noted.

It’s a bit of a leap, but there is clearly confusion (the 84% increase in rejected recycling since 2011 is proof enough) and paper cups are a case in point – previous surveys have suggested that 80% of the public think they can be plonked in the paper bin. In fact, they’re very difficult to recycle with a plastic liner fused to the paper.

That the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero have allowed this misconception to materialise and blossom is also not in doubt. But the fact Starbucks suggested a ‘not recyclable’ label might be appropriate at present, while Costa quickly whipped the Möbius Loop symbol from its cups (“until we are satisfied that more of our takeaway cups are being recycled”) suggests the game’s up.

Jason Cotta is managing director at Costa. “[Our] takeaway cups and lids are recyclable, as evident in our partnerships with Veolia and James Cropper, who recycle our cups,” he explains. “We do, however, agree that not enough takeaway cups are recovered and recycled and it is right that the industry as a whole is challenged to confront this issue.”

The media spotlight has certainly focused minds. Conversations are taking place up and down the supply chain, says Martin Kersh, executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association. “We can’t deny it,” he says, “Hugh [Fearnley-Whittingstall]’s programme attracted 7.5 million viewers, [so] it’s on the radar.”

Showing serious intent

Just before July’s programme, a paper cup ‘manifesto’, signed by more than 45 businesses and organisations, was published by the FPA. The three biggest coffee shop brands are in there, so too are caterers such as BaxterStorey and Compass, and fast-food chain McDonald’s. From the packaging sector there’s Huhtamaki and Vegware, while the likes of DS Smith and James Cropper (the latter having invested £5m in a paper cup recycling plant in Cumbria) are there representing the recyclers and reprocessors.

“Driven by consumer reaction, we believe that it is no longer acceptable for cups to be ‘recyclable’ and ‘compostable’,” says Goodwin at Simply Cups. “Instead the public wants to know what is actually recycled or composted and then what this is turned into.”

But let’s not put the cart before the horse; consumers also want to understand what can be recycled and where. ‘Communications and engagement’ is one of six working groups within the manifesto; the aim is to create a “coherent customer message”.

Capturing the cups

Improved recycling infrastructure is another key work stream. This is a challenge that newspapers and campaigners have, thus far, failed to appreciate or even acknowledge. Takeaway drinks are consumed on the move and that makes life very difficult for those trying to capture the cups. That isn’t to say there’s a diminished responsibility for the foodservice sector; rather that things won’t improve overnight or without fairly considerable investment.

This is where the working group results will become particularly interesting. Will they consider, for example, cup waste in the context of all waste?

Simon Ellin is chief executive at the Recycling Association.

He notes that the recyclability of coffee cups is “undoubtedly challenging” due to the nature of the material and the difficulty in separating the cups when they are consumed by the public while on the move. “Let’s put this into context though,” he adds. “Paper coffee cups account for less than 0.00005% by weight of the UK’s total waste production (commercial and municipal), so although ideally we should be recovering more, the impact on the environment per se is negligible.”

It’s a fair point; the same one that was made many times in relation to plastic bags. However, in October last year, England finally joined Scotland, Wales and Ireland by introducing a charge on them. That small change has triggered massive reductions in consumption and this has piqued the interest of certain politicians.

The previous resource minister, Rory Stewart, said back in March that a cup tax could work. “The government have tackled plastic bags – I hope everybody in the House [of Commons] would agree that the plastic bag tax has been a success – and coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next.”

Defra quickly moved to reject the idea. Stewart was notably responding when Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign and the national press were in full flow. But at that time we didn’t know quite how successful the bag levy was proving to be. Does this mean his successor at Defra, Thérèse Coffey, could be keen on taxing disposable cups?

Sticking to their guns

The bag story would have provided a warm glow, no doubt, but the Conservatives have by and large avoided Pigouvian taxes and stuck steadfastly to an industry-led approach to public policy. Fearnley-Whittingstall wasted no time in criticising the manifesto, though: “It’s couched in the usual woolly terms,” he said.

He has a point. “The paper cup supply chain agrees to work together to ensure paper cups are designed, used, disposed of and collected to maximise the opportunities for recycling by further investment and funding of recycling, disposal and collection projects,” the document reads. Still, plucking a target from thin air would have been naïve.

“The complex nature of the life cycle of a paper cup […] means that committing to recycling targets for these materials is not as simple as picking a number and working towards it,” says Dee Moloney, director at Anthesis Group and a spokesperson for the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group.

Targets are unlikely to be set at any stage. It will therefore be interesting to see how the team tracks progress – and whether this is enough to keep campaigners and politicians happy.

By 2020, signatories have committed to ensuring “the greater majority of the UK population will have access to information, schemes and facilities that enable used paper cups to be sustainably recovered and recycled”.

The paper cup manifesto has provided time to regroup and rethink. But don’t expect interest to cool.

Those that believe ministers aren’t prepared to mix things up by using the carrot and the stick need look no further than the obesity strategy that’s just been published. Much of it is light touch with industry “challenged” and “encouraged”, but a tax on sugary drinks remains front and centre.

David Burrows is a freelance writer


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