Coffee Cups: The Unfiltered Story

28/07/2016 16:11 | Updated 28 July 2016

The takeaway coffee habit is now part of most people's lives. What people didn't previously realise is that of the seven million coffee cups used each day in the UK, only 1% of them are recycled. People think they are recyclable, and technically they are - but it is too difficult and expensive to separate the inner plastic membrane from the cardboard, and so they end up in landfill or are incinerated.

Some people now take reusable cups with them when they're out and about, but there are new products coming onto the market such as Nescafe's incomprehensible Azera which encourages consumers to make their "coffee to go" at home, in a non-recyclable takeaway cup.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's excellent 'War on Waste' has again shone a spotlight on our escalating waste problem: how there are too few incentives for (or requirements on) producers to make their packaging recyclable, leaving local councils and the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Coffee cups are part of a wider story which has seen household recycling rates fall this year for the first time since records began 15 years ago. People from the waste and resources sector are telling me they are struggling just to hold onto the value of what they have. UK recycling infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to recycle all the materials we recover, so lots of it is still exported overseas. And there are real worries about the impact of Brexit on a sector where EU legislation has been a key driver over the past two decades.

Last month, I wrote to the major coffee chains to ask if they would convene a summit to find a solution - for example, to source recyclable single use coffee cups or to offer discounts to customers who bring their own cups, or preferably both.

One chain, with ethical branding, wrote back that they didn't think it was a priority: "whilst this is an escalating issue and one in the public eye ... we must in the face of media attention maintain perspective on what really has material impact". While this waste may have a comparatively less harmful impact than other environmental or public health problems facing us - they mention the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals - their lack of interest surprised me.

Most pointed to the industry-wide 'Paper Cup Manifesto' which is a great start. But the Manifesto has no specific target for increasing recycling rates, by which progress can be meaningfully judged. There also seems too much emphasis on the paper mill part of the recycling process, and less on ensuring cups could be more easily recycled by the mills, and virtually nothing on reusable cups.

Starbucks seems to have gone further - offering a discount to consumers who bring their own mug, and agreeing to trial the Frugalpac cup which is recyclable in normal paper mills - but the big test will be if such a cup is adopted more widely.

As ever, there is only so much (slow) progress that can be made by leaving things to the market. Given the success of the 5p charge on single-use carrier bags, the time may have come for Government to look at something similar for coffee cups.

But when the former Environment Minister, Rory Stewart suggested this may have been part of his thinking, the Government quickly corrected him, saying there were "no plans to tax them". And in a more recent parliamentary answer it suggested the current system was working well.

On so many issues I've raised with the Government - such as asking for a cost-benefits analysis of a deposit refund scheme, or for them to include marine litter in their Litter Strategy - they rule out the very measures that could make a difference.

What we need is real ambition and vision from the Government, and a commitment to match - or even exceed - the EU's Circular Economy package, from eco-design to extending producer responsibility to a wider range of products.

A circular economy which reuses, recycles and remanufactures, making the most of precious resources, is a real opportunity for new businesses and jobs, as well as an environmental imperative. There is so much scope for innovation in this field. The future is not in low-cost products using finite resources, designed to fail after their warranty expires, but in products that are designed and manufactured for reuse or recycling. British companies and entrepreneurs are well-placed to take advantage of this.

Wales has demonstrated how ambitious thinking and political commitment can drive progress and boost growth and jobs. How intelligent regulation sends the right signals to business, and can shape markets of the future. With a much stronger policy platform, it has already met the EU's 2020 household recycling target, not only leading the other UK nations but making it 4th in Europe.

We now need the UK Government to step up to the mark too.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East