Opinion: Coffee shops and the war on waste

Opinion: Coffee shops and the war on waste

Like it or lump it, the UK is in the midst of a war on waste. More than ever, operators up and down the country are under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and outlets that serve takeaway coffees are no exception. Central to the debate are disposable coffee cups. In the UK, we get through 7m every day (that’s 2.5bn over the course of a year). Those figures in isolation aren’t necessarily a cause for concern, but the chronically low recycling rates certainly are – the most recent research indicates just one in 400 make it to an appropriate recycling facility, largely due to the difficult-to-recycle mix of plastic and paper.

The problem is not going away. At the start of this year the government’s Environmental Audit Committee made a recommendation for a 25p charge on each disposable cup sold – the so-called ‘latte levy’ – with a further warning that if coffee cups are not fully recyclable by 2023, they should be banned altogether.

In the face of a fairly ominous headwind, the reaction from high street outlets has been promising. In January 2018, Pret a Manger hit the headlines by doubling its discount on the price of a hot drink to 50p for bringing a re-usable cup – music to the ears of bargain hunters who can now grab a filter coffee for just 49p! Starbucks and Costa customers benefit from a 25p discount, while those loyal to Cafe Nero will receive an extra stamp on their loyalty card.

But is it working? Our research, underpinned by Morar HPI’s BrandVue data, reveals that 36% of the UK population own a reusable cup. While this appears to be encouraging, the figure falls to 11% for those that say they are using it on a regular basis. Perhaps there will be more awareness and public engagement with these initiatives over time.

The predicament, however, taps into the wider debate around whether incentives alone are enough to encourage people to act in a sustainable way. Or should policy makers intervene, give up on notions of social responsibility and instead try to regulate the activities of consumers instead?

Some will point towards the UK’s plastic bag levy (a 5p charge on all single-use plastic bags) as a successful framework to follow. Following its introduction in October 2015, the number of bags used at large retailers across the country has reduced by more than 80% with an expected overall benefit of £730m to the UK economy.

To this is end, Starbucks is trialling a 5p charge on paper cups used in some of its London stores over the coming months. While this is a bold move – and marks a change in tack from incentive to charge – it may well be a sign of things to come and something for restaurants with a takeaway coffee offer to pay attention to.