A Year After Successful Plastic Bag Charge, Let's Focus On Coffee Cup Waste

11/10/2016 18:08
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In the year since the 5p charge on single-use plastic bags was introduced, plastic bag use in England has reduced by a massive 85%. It's an astonishing success that comes as no surprise as it had already proven successful in other nations; Wales was first out of the blocks with a carrier bag charge as early as 2011.

England is getting a bit of a reputation as a late-starter so maybe Westminster can reclaim some environmental forward-thinking by taking a similar approach to the scandal of disposable coffee cups.

It's estimated that 2.5billion coffee cups end up in landfill every year. It's sadly undeniable that we have a cultural problem with litter blighting our beautiful countryside: a leaf-denuded autumnal hedge pockmarked with flapping supermarket plastic bags is viscerally awful, and what a miserable scene a litter-strewn high street is at any time of the year.

And what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Waste plastic ends up everywhere - especially in our waterways and oceans - and wherever it ends up it stays, for centuries. Surely, it's incontrovertible to suggest that anything that can be done to reduce waste has got to be good.

When you buy a takeaway tea or coffee, the cup in which it's served may look recyclable, but because of a thin plastic film that keeps the liquid securely on the inside, it is not. So even if you put it in the recycling bin, it will end up in landfill. And the outside of the cup is likely made from virgin paper sources, in other words, we are felling trees to make a paper cup, lining it with a petroleum based film, using it for a few minutes and then chucking it out. It's not acceptable; change is needed. This is how:

Step 1. We think non-recyclable paper cups should be banned. Within a year or maybe two, you should be able to go into a coffee shop and have your beverage of choice served in a cup that you can then recycle.

Coffee chains have told us they're working on recyclable cups and that is of course welcome, but few things focus the minds of business harder than an impending ban. There are already companies making cups in which a thin, liquid-proof film can easily be separated from the paper during the recycling process. And there are already recycling companies that can process existing cups. But currently, it's estimated only 1 in 400 disposable cups are recycled; the rest are just chucked away.

We asked people who support Friends of the Earth about this issue, and what they wanted us to do: they were clear that we should target the major coffee chains, and wanted to find out more about buying re-usable coffee cups.

Step 2: Alongside the stick, there needs to be a carrot - what can be done while we wait for government to ban non-recyclable cups, and while coffee chains get their collective caffeine heads around how to serve us coffee in something that we can put in a recycling bin? As any primary school child knows - thankfully our children are taught this stuff now - there is a 'waste hierarchy' which goes reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I'm the last person to want to go without coffee so we can probably leave reduce alone on this occasion, but what if coffee chains gave us a good discount if we brought our own, reusable cups? Some already do, but like the carrier bag charge, if we felt we were gaining by using our own cups or losing out by being charged more for a disposable cup, we'd change our behaviour.

Reusable coffee cups vary in size, shape, design, material and price, and I'm pleased to say that in an informal review by Friends of the Earth staff this week, all of the ones that we sourced were BPA free. There is a one-off cost involved of course (we sell one in our shop for £7); all the more reason then that the coffee chains offer some money off if you don't use a paper cup.

Put simply: the plastic bag charge was a huge success, so why stop there. Let's focus elsewhere, and get cracking with other, easy things to change, like disposable coffee cups. When that's cracked, let's move on to the bottle deposit scheme, and then any other by-products of modern life like the completely oversized boxes and excess packaging that results from online shopping.

We will also pressure the government (DEFRA) to encourage companies to act as quickly as possible, using the threat of regulatory action if necessary. Almost 20,000 people have signed our petition asking for government action.

What next? We should just keep going, campaign by campaign, targeting every-day waste until we throw nothing away that isn't recyclable or bio-degradable. Various industries will sniff contemptibly, claiming that such measures are confusing, difficult or impossible, of course they will, but forward thinking business - and nations - will see an opportunity and get on with making things that are less bad, and give us opportunities to feel, and be, good.