Lead feature: The Plastic Age

Lead feature: The Plastic Age

Yes, plastic is back in the headlines once more and so too are single-use coffee cups – the icon of our throw-away society. What to do about them is a perennial concern as the barometer rises once again, and not just as a result of rising carbon emissions.

David Attenborough’s latest wildlife TV series, Blue Planet II, featuring an albatross mistaking a plastic bag in the sea for a fish and then feeding it to its chick, who obligingly regurgitates it for the TV cameras, has aroused ire, passion and a call to arms no politician could have done. The subsequent handing out of re-useable coffee cups made of sustainable bamboo to other MPs comes a poor second in the eyes of the public, especially as it has since been revealed that the House of Commons gets through 1m disposable cups of coffee a year, the equivalent of 1,500 cups per MP!

It does, however, signal a strong desire by politicians not to be seen to be dragging their heels in this particular area, inevitably arousing fears among the coffee shop industry that draconian populist measures may await. And, worst of all, draconian populist measures that could make a bad situation even worse through poor science and knee-jerk responses.

Yet doing nothing is clearly not an option. For man not just a ruthless killer of other ‘lesser’ species, but also a polluter par excellence. We’ve gone from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and now, post-industrially, we are firmly in the Plastic Age.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, wasn’t joking when he said that plastic bags, yoghurt pots and, yes, disposable coffee cups will be the chief archaeological relics that define our age. “Single-use plastics take five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again,” he summarised.

Single-use, throw away coffee cups remain an environmental nightmare. In Britain alone we get through 2.5bn of them a year – enough to stretch around the globe five and a half times. Only one in 400 – a teeny weenie quarter of a percent – ever get recycled.

The big problem is that most disposable coffee cups cannot be recycled at conventional recycling centres, as the paper cup is lined with plastic polyethylene. They need to be take to a specialist facility, but there are currently only three such plants here in the UK.
In fact, coffee cups have become symbolic of the whole issue of plastic and its environmental problems. Europe as a whole consumes close on 60m tonnes of it a year, an amount that were it a crop would fill up 40,000 square miles — about a tenth of all arable land currently under cultivation in Europe.

And now China has added further heat and froth to the debate with its recent decision to cut back on the levels of international waste it recycles. Britain will be hit especially hard and no longer able to send certain grades of plastic there. According to HM Revenue and Customs figures, Britain exported about 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year to China and Hong Kong in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The decision by the Chinese authorities has already placed much of the UK’s recycling industry in a considerable quandary over how to deal with our existing waste, other than burning millions of tonnes of it.

The time for talking may be over. As far as coffee cups are concerned there’s now a proposal for an aptly-named 25p named ‘latte tax’ on each disposable cup sold. It comes from the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee’s Disposable Packaging Inquiry, which reported in early January. The report concludes that reusable cups are the answer, and only the tax will drive the desired change in consumer habits.

The committee’s MPs concluded that a latte tax would prove popular with consumers, encouraging a likely 30% drop in disposable coffee cup usage. It would not only reduce the burden on local authorities, but also raise revenue to invest in reprocessing facilities and bin infrastructure to ensure the remaining disposable cups are recycled. “This would cut costs for coffee retailers, who would need to purchase and dispose of fewer cups,” states the report’s authors. But the report’s recommendations go further than that. MPs have said that all coffee cups should be recycled by 2023, and if that deadline is not met, then one-use disposable coffee cups should be banned outright.

The issue of disposable coffee cups is not going to diminish any time soon. If anything, the debate is going to intensify. The government also published its 25-year plan for packaging and sustainability called A Green Future. Though the report has been criticised for its lack of detail and commitment, it clearly states that it intends to achieve “zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042”.

The government also intends to persuade consumers to eschew single-use plastics by extension of the carrier bag charge. It will also work at improving the consistency and collection rates of plastic recycling. The big coffee chains have wasted little time in improving their own efforts on this front. In January, Pret announced it would offer a 50p discount to all customers who supplied their own re-useable mug, doubling the 25p discount it previously offered.

In 2016, rival chain Starbucks introduced a 50p discount for customers with their own cups, but scrapped it three months later. Starbucks was in fact the first chain to introduce discounts for reusable cups, in 1998, when customers were offered a 10p discount. Starbucks is now planning to start charging customers 5p for a disposable cup in some outlets, in order to encourage reusable cup use. It also sells reusable cups for £1, and again provides coffee in china mugs for anyone taking coffee in-store.

Costa, Britain’s largest coffee chain with more than 2,000 outlets, offers a 25p discount to anyone bringing in a reusable cup. The chain also claims that anyone having coffee in-store is served in crockery and accounts for 60% of coffee sales. Caffè Nero says it accepts reusable cups from customers and applies a double stamp on their loyalty cards, the equivalent of a 25p discount. People having coffee in-store are always served on china, unless otherwise requested.

Greggs, which arguably sells as much if not more of the beverage than the big coffee chains, has introduced a disposable cup that can be purchased for £2. On purchase customers get a free cup of coffee with it and will then be able to redeem 20p off future hot drinks. The 20p discount also applies to people bringing in their own reusable cups. Greggs, however, does not offer china mugs to customers consuming coffee in-store, but the company said recently in an article in The Independent newspaper that it was working “behind the scenes with multiple organisations” to help build more cup collection points for cups to be recycled.

While these incentives may help change people’s throwaway mentality, others believe we need to move towards the sort of action being taken in France, where the government has said it will ban all disposable cups and plates by 2020. Despite retailer’s best efforts to change old habits, the ease of disposable but unrecyclable cups is likely to remain, with current uptake of reusable cups currently only at around 1%. “Stronger legal measures, such as those applied in France, would have greater effect,” Paul Foot, a partner and patent lawyer at property firm Withers & Rogers, told Packaging Europe.

Only an outright ban on disposable coffee cups by a set date would force manufacturers and coffee retailers to invest heavily in research and development to come up with new and more effective recycling and manufacturing innovations. There’s also been a lukewarm response from the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA), which maintains that the latte levy will only harm the coffee merchandisers. Instead the organisation’s executive director, Martin Kersh, has cited two other clauses in the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, which he believes offers a far more sensible way forward. “The public needs a simple, UK-wide solution, one which is made possible by the introduction of an on-the-go waste management infrastructure,” he told an audience at an FPA summit at the end of January. The onus for funding this should come from reform of the existing UK Producer Responsibility (Packaging Recovery Note) mechanism, which has been endorsed by many of the UK’s main retailers and brands, said Kersh.

He added that the FPA has been urging the UK government “for sometime” to reform the Packaging Recovery Note system, as well as for the introduction of a funded on-the-go waste management infrastructure. The latte levy, he argued, would just end up shifting the cost of the clean-up from the producer onto the consumer. “Business has made clear its willingness to provide greater funding to achieve more collection and recycling through the PRN system,” he said. “Surely government should seize this opportunity and reform the system.”
Plastic is undoubtedly a scourge; it is the albatross around everyone’s necks, but policymaking needs to be fully thought-out and considered, rather than a quick doff at fashionable and ill-considered sentiment. Law, technology and innovation, plus a will to do the right thing, is clearly needed.