Coffee shops and the war on waste

More than ever, operators up and down the country are under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and high street coffee outlets are no exception.
James Varlow

April 5, 2018

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 high street coffee outlets are no exception.

Central to the debate are disposable coffee cups. In the UK, we get through seven million every day, (2.5 billion 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 1 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 all together.

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 whilst those loyal to Caffè 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 over a third (36%) of the UK population own a reusable cup. While this appears to be encouraging, the figure falls to 11% for those that admit to 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 whether policy makers should intervene, give up on notions of social responsibility and instead try to regulate the activities of consumers?

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 £730 million to the UK economy.

To this is end, Starbucks is set to trial 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 tac from incentive to charge - it may well be a sign of things to come.   


This article was originally published in Casual Dining Magazine

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