David McLagan believes that if we are to be successful in winning the war on waste we need consumers, business and government to act in unison in order to reduce the huge volumes of single-use items going to landfill, waterways and oceans. 

The waste created by single-use items is a significant global issue and takeaway coffee cups contribute more than their fair share; 100 billion end up in landfill globally each year – more than 270 million cups every single day.

The vast majority of single-use takeaway cups are non-recyclable due to the complexity of separating their plastic lining from the outer paper; net result being that less than one percent of them get recycled. Similarly, so-called compostable single-use cups simply don’t have the infrastructure or facilities required to prevent them from being binned as well.

The war on waste has gathered momentum in the last six months thanks to a marked increase in media coverage driven by celebrities and some sectors of government. Scenes from BBC’s Blue Planet II, or via social media, where millions shared Caroline Power’s shocking footage of ‘Plastic Island’ in the Caribbean, have certainly boosted public awareness to a new level.

Some independent and chain cafes have responded well, with many now providing incentives for customers to switch single-use in favour of re-use; Pret’s 50p discount being a game-changer. But it’s not the silver bullet. Whilst price incentives are positive, I strongly believe that consumers will only truly change behaviour through a combination of incentive and penalty. The punitive aspect still needs to be thrashed out, but until consumers feel the pinch, we feel they are not likely to change their long-term behaviour.

In January 2018 MPs called for a so-called Latte Levy – a 25p charge on consumers for purchasing drinks in a single-use cup – hoping this would encourage them instead to bring their own reusable cup.

Immediately after the Latte Levy was proposed, images of Cabinet Ministers each sporting an Ecoffee Cup outside No.10 emerged in the press – triggered, we presume, by increased public and media scrutiny into the Environment Ministry’s shameful reliance on single-use cups and general government malaise on the issue. While this show of support provided a welcome gesture to highlight the issue, it lacked any real action by way of policy.

Sadly, in the weeks that followed I began to think that the Latte Levy may have been nothing more than froth – a convenient way to grab headlines without any genuine legislative attempt to change. So it comes with a degree of excitement that I hear Chancellor Philip Hammond’s plans to redress the issue in his Spring Statement, vowing to launch an investigation into a possible tax on single-use waste. This time, the hope is that it actually amounts to some meaningful change.

We have already witnessed the encouraging effects a tax on single-use plastics can have. The 5p charge on plastic shopper bags, introduced in October 2015, was a landmark piece of legislation and has been credited in changing consumer behaviour and resulting in the reduction of single-use shopper bag usage more than 80 percent in England. This outcome is testament to government working together with businesses and the public to implement positive, effective change.

There is no reason why a tax on single-use cups wouldn’t work in much the same way – and consumers seem receptive to such a charge. A recent poll by the Marine Conservation Society found that three-quarters of people would support a charge on single-use takeaway cups.

However, compared with the 5p plastic bag tax, we feel a 25p charge for cups seems unduly punitive on the café industry – especially smaller, independent operators. We don’t want something that may be detrimental to profitability and jobs as this would be counterproductive. People also question where the tax ends up, so this needs to be made clear. Our suggestion would be to ring-fence this revenue for use in initiatives directly designed to help consumers kick their reliance on single-use items.

In my opinion, a 10p charge per cup seems a bit more commensurate, but that’s for the policymakers to decide.

What we cannot deny is that something must be done as a matter of urgency and this needs to be a combination of incentives for reuse, penalties for single-use and improved infrastructure for recycling.

I’m ever hopeful that 2018 will be a watershed in the war on waste and in our battle to help #stopthe100billion. We need consumers, business and government to act in unison in order to reduce the huge volumes of single-use items going to landfill, waterways and oceans.

The problem is likely to take a long time to improve, however, so we can’t expect instant solutions.

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