The "latte levy": will it really prevent consumers from using disposable coffee cups, or do we need to do more?

With the reuse revolution taking a storm across the UK, many more coffee shops are now offering discounts for customers who bring their own reusable coffee cups, including Starbucks, Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee, Paul, Gregg's and Cafe Nero to name a few. But what if in addition to offering a discount for using a reusable cup, coffee shops stick a non-refundable 25p levy for customers who use disposable cups? This would follow the same principles as the current 5p carrier bag charge that was instated in the UK in 2015, and has seen a 90% decrease in the use of single-use plastic bags. Would the so-called "latte levy" yield similar results as the 5p carrier bag charge? Maybe, but we'll explore this idea more in a separate blog post as we think it warrants a deeper dive, but I digress. 

In response to the proposed latte levy policy, Starbucks UK is beginning trials by applying a 5p charge in 35 of it's central London stores to see if this will encourage more customers to use reusable coffee cups or to drink their hot drinks in the store in their ceramic mugs. Currently only about 1.8% of Starbucks customers use their own reusable coffee cups! However, a customer poll conducted by Starbucks found that 48% of customers would use a reusable coffee cup if an additional charge was applied for disposable cups. All proceeds of this 5p latte levy from Starbucks will be donated to environmental and behavioural change charity, Hubbub, who are on a mission to curb the use of disposable coffee cups. However, many are questioning whether this is enough, whether this is a PR stunt by Starbucks and whether the issue is actually a much wider societal issue at large. 

But will charging customers an extra 5p really encourage consumers to carry around a reusable coffee cup everyday? Starbucks regularly increases the price of their drinks in line with inflation and rising costs of coffee beans. In September 2017 Starbucks increased the price of many of their drinks by 10%, adding an additional 30p on average to the cost of a drink. These regular price increases haven't prevented customers from buying their daily cups of coffee, so why would an additional 5p make a difference? It's very likely that consumers will absorb an increase of 5p and barely notice it. But, trying to look at this optimistically, perhaps the psychological reaction to seeing an additional 5p as a separate line on their receipt may incentivize more people to use their reusable cups. 

The issue with our waste-addicted society is both cultural and psychological. From a cultural perspective, we live in an extremely fast-paced, on-the-go, convenience-based lifestyle. Some days we eat out for all meals in a day, and we don't even notice how much waste we throw out from each convenience meal as we run from one meeting to the next. We're under pressure at work to always deliver higher goals and to be constantly multitasking as teams continuously become more lean and "efficient". We don't even make the time to slow down, sit peacefully and enjoy a cup of coffee from time to time. 

From an individual psychology perspective, understanding what drives human motivation is really the key to helping solve this problem. Humans are more motivated by the stimulation of their intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is best described through the carrot and the stick analogy, based on reward (motivating the donkey to pull the cart by dangling a carrot in front of it) and punishment (whipping the donkey with a stick when it doesn't comply). Intrinsic motivation is a bit more complex to explain. It can be linked to an individual's personal internal objectives, morals and ethics but can be as simple as enjoying the challenge of a complex yet stimulating problem (i.e. completing a crossword puzzle).

When we apply this understanding of human motivation to the disposable coffee cup problem, we can understand that financial rewards and penalties may not be the most effective. By offering a financial penalty, the latte levy targets our extrinsic motivation. Similarly, due to the financial reward, offering discounts for the use of reusable coffee cups is also an extrinsic motivator. So we should be focusing on intrinsic motivators. Because intrinsic motivation is extremely personal, it's harder to target everyone, but we could use various approaches and tactics from the behavioural sciences and economics to try to stimulate the intrinsic motivation of a society. So, while the latte levy and the reusable cup discounts from coffee shops are a positive step and are bringing attention to this problem, they're probably not the be-all and end-all solution. 

To end on an optimistic note, though, we really need to create a strong cultural shift and begin to perceive disposable products as disgusting, cancerous, filthy products that only cause harm. Just like we now perceive cigarettes. Then maybe we have a chance in transitioning out of this culture of waste. We need to continue on this path of raising awareness and helping change behaviours and re-branding the image of "busy" and "convenience".

At The Simplr Co, we're passionate about helping shape this re-branding, and we'd be excited to take this even further beyond than just promoting the use of reusable coffee cups by partnering with other like-minded individuals and organizations to change behaviour and our culture

Get in touch with us if you want to come along on this wild ride with us!

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