Corporations should be held responsible for reducing the number of disposable coffee cups, not consumers

The coffee industry in the United Kingdom is growing rapidly and more than half of all hot beverages are served in disposable cups, a 2018 report from the Environmental Audit Committee found. Widely available to consumers, take-away coffee is now available in not only in cafés, but also supermarkets, lounges, recreational facilities and more.

Disposable coffee cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic which makes them waterproof, but this seal cannot be removed properly by most recycling facilities, effectively contaminating the whole cup. Mistakenly, many people think that disposable cups are recyclable and put them in the incorrect bin as a result, showing that there is a clear misunderstanding from the public and causes extra work at recycling facilities who then have to pick out each cup from what can actually be recycled.

In fact, there are only three recycling companies in the UK that can separate the cup from the plastic lining, which are James Cropper PLC, ACE UK and Veolia. Due to the logistical nightmares of simply sending the cups all the way to one of these centres, it’s unlikely that the cups end up being separated from what goes to the landfill.

Number of coffee chains in the UK

Environmentally friendly coffee fanatics are choosing to bring their own reusable cups for baristas — and companies are encouraging this by offering them discounts, ranging from 0.20p to 0.50p off their drinks. These chains are also directly selling their own reusable take-away cups, promoting the bring-your-own-cup movement in an attempt to curb pollution.

Though much of the population still relies on the disposable cups, it makes sense both economically and environmentally to make the switch. Each chain offers its own take on a reusable cup — most notably Starbuck’s £1 cup, though there are numerous ones available in stores and online — which, after usually only a few uses, pays for itself and then begins to save consumers money on each coffee run they make after.

There are recommendations in the report that the government introduce a tax on plastic single-use cups, and a separate Cardiff University study found that the plastic bag fee in England has been successful enough to work for coffee cups.

We therefore recommend that the Government introduces a minimum 25p levy on disposable cups. The revenue should be used to invest in reprocessing facilities and “binfrastructure” to ensure that the remaining disposable cups are recycled.

Though the government found that customers are more responsive the being charged extra than to a discount on their coffee, coffee chain Pret A Manger found that customers are more willing to bring in their own cup when they are given a discount and as a result, doubled theirs from 0.25p to 0.50p per beverage. In a post on their website, the CEO of Pret A Manger, Clive Schlee explained his company’s reasoning for providing a bigger discount to customers who bring reusable cups instead of introducing a fee for people who don’t:

We debated whether charging people for using paper cups felt right. We decided that it goes against our instincts as we would prefer to be generous to our customers than to tax them. Let’s see what impact the new discount has…”

Until something like this does get implemented, there are companies aiming to make a change in the single-use stream.Vegware is a company that produces its products without the use of any plastic, so that they can be composted after they are done being used. The company sells cups to schools, hospitals and independent coffee shops and though these cups are better for the environment, they can cause confusion for consumers who don’t realise that they must be put into foot waste bins.

According to The Guardian, Sainsbury sold 537 percent more portable cups in December 2017 than it did one year prior, and Lakeland reported an increase of 100 percent month-to-month and an increase of 50 percent over the prior year.

This spreads light on a nationwide misunderstanding of how to recycle and what goes into each bin. Putting a compostable product into the recycling contaminates the recycling, making it unsuitable for processing and forcing it to be thrown into the regular garbage.

The other issue with the concept of disposable cups is not the material they are made out of, but rather the idea of disposability itself. Companies have brainwashed us into thinking that throw-away cups are the acceptable norm, which isn’t as much a personal choice as one that is forced upon us by multi-billion dollar companies who don’t have to address the environmental consequences of their actions. Consumers aren’t required to take personal responsibility for their actions — but should they, when not enough is being done to produce an alternative that is beneficial for the environment?