The proposed 5p disposable coffee cup charge has been abolished – let’s look at this positively and take matters into our own hands

The UK Lib Dem party in the UK had proposed a 5p charge for disposable coffee cups after the initial success of the 5p carrier bag charge that was introduced in late 2015. The carrier bag charge saw a reduction of disposable bags by roughly 83% since it’s implementation, so it only makes sense that a coffee cup charge would follow next. 

But the Conservative government believes that major coffee chains are already doing enough to curb the environmental impact of disposable coffee cups, such as providing compostable or recyclable cups or offering a monetary discount when customers use reusable cups. However, Starbucks is the only major UK coffee chain that offers customers a discount when they use their reusable cups and Costa recently removed the recycling symbol from their disposable cups after much consumer backlash in reaction to the news that their cups are not recyclable in the first place. In fact, less than 1% of the 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups in the UK can be and are recycled.

According to the Guardian, “a Cardiff University study said the 5p bag charge had been so successful in England that a fee on cups could work too. The research found that the bag charge had led people to more willingly embrace other waste policies too, such as a charge on plastic bottles or coffee cups”. 

So how does this stack up against the Conservative party’s claims that major coffee chains in the UK are already doing enough to curb the use of disposable coffee cups? We think the Conservative party has provided a completely unsubstantiated conclusion and are just ignoring the problem at hand.

Jumping across the pond to the more environmentally progressive city of Vancouver, Canada, there is the Binner’s Project. In Canada, there is a 5 cent deposit on all plastic bottles and soda cans, and this has spurred an industry for the homeless and less well-off to make some extra cash while helping to keep these easily recyclable products out of landfills. Now the Binner’s Project is taking this a step further – they are tackling disposable coffee cups. Although there is no legally applied 5 cent charge on disposable coffee cups in Canada (yet), the charitable project hosts an annual event where it encourages ‘binners’ to collect disposable coffee cups and bring them in for a 5 cent refund, funded by chartable donations. This not only helps keep the environment cleaner but also offers support to people who need it most without subjecting them to begging on the streets. In 2016, they collected over 49,000 cups in just 4 hours. With a big batch of cups like that, the Binner’s Project can easily mass recycle the cups while raising social awareness.

So coming back to our original question – would a 5p charge to disposable coffee cups address the growing mountain of wasteland? It most probably would, considering how effective the carrier bag charge has been. And if the government went one or two steps further and implemented a refundable 5p deposit on recyclable bottles, cans and coffee cups then we’d see even less waste ending up in landfills and we’d see less people selling Big Issue magazines and more people voluntarily cleaning the streets. Maybe we’d each even save some council tax. 

It’s a great shame that the government has stopped this initiative in its tracks, but we won’t get discouraged. We know that change is usually incremental, and this is a bigger, societal and branding change that can also happen from the bottom-up through education and through leading by example. Of course we think that a government-mandated change would be more quickly effective, but if they won’t do it, then we the people will do it. Stay tuned as we prepare to take this into our own hands.

Watch below for how major coffee chains in Canada claim they recycle their disposable coffee cups and how the Binner's Project initiative helps:

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