In the United Kingdom, coffee drinkers throw away at least 2.5 billion cups every year, according to a recent British government report. Making the impact considerably worse is that though most coffee cups appear to be paper from the outside, they typically have a coating on the inside that not only prevents them from leaking, but also prevents them from being recycled. As a result, these cups can be far more damaging to the environment than they appear on first blush. These issues have led a UK parliamentary committee to make a bold recommendation: a 25 pence (about 34 cent) “latte levy” on every cup sold, potentially raising the cost of coffee-based drinks about 10 percent each.
With disposable coffee cups, consumer ignorance is one of the biggest issues. According to the parliamentary report, eight out of ten Brits believe that paper coffee cups are recyclable, with the majority of consumers even tossing them in recycling bins. Meanwhile, less than one-quarter of one percent were actually being properly recycled by finding their way to one of two British facilities that have the capabilities to strip the plastic coating from the inside of the cup so the outside paper can be recycled.
The UK has been successfully proactive about attacking consumer pollution problems in the past. In 2015, the country enacted a five-pence charge for plastic bags, after which bag waste dropped over 80 percent, according to the New York Times.
But for now, the “latte levy” is just a proposal; whether it will actually be instituted is yet to be seen. However, some coffee chains are already attempting to encourage less cup waste. For instance, Starbucks said it’s planning to test a 5-pence charge on paper cups at 25 locations in London starting in February. And according to the BBC, plenty of chains already incentivize reusable cups by offering discounts to customers who bring their own coffee container. Even then though, the British government questioned those systems, writing, “Despite having spent years talking about the problem, industry’s voluntary commitments have been inconsistent and ineffective,” pointing out that some of these efforts were even “introduced during the course of the inquiry.”
Of course, another solution exists: Creating a coffee cup that is both leak-proof and recyclable. A British company called Frugalpac claims it’s done just that. However, the British report also stated, “We heard little substantial evidence about how these cups would meet the manufacturing standards that prohibit contaminated containers from entering mainstream waste recycling.” And in the end, the best solution is still to simply use less cups to begin with.