18 April 2023

We don’t need more heavy-handed regulation to tackle single-use plastics

By Kitty Thompson

The UK’s caffeine addiction is creating a veritable mountain of waste, with disposable coffee cups fueling ever greater demand for plastic, paper, water, and energy. But it need not be like this. The Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan includes a cryptic aim to use ‘technological innovation’ and ‘behavioural science’ to solve this problem. We must ensure that dealing with the environmental consequences of our on-the-go coffee culture doesn’t leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

As a department with a notoriously long to-do list, Defra must avoid getting bogged down in creating a government-mandated solution that simply copies what the market is already doing anyway. From Caffe Nero to that hipster cafe round the corner, it is already normal for coffee shops to offer incentives for customers to bring a reusable cup with them.

Just as it has done for cutlery, plates, and straws, by singling out coffee cups, the Government risks creating yet more heavy-handed regulation that disproportionately impacts one item, without solving the underlying problem of our wasteful use of disposable, single-use packaging.

Rather than punish caffeine consumers, ministers should work with businesses to design an incentive structure that tackles unnecessary single-use packaging once and for all. This means looking beyond recycling to empower businesses to provide the innovative, reusable alternatives they are already trialling.

Billions of these composite coffee cups continue to enter the UK market each year, with as few as one in 400 recycled due to their hard-to-recycle plastic lining. Making these materially complex, single-use products recyclable is a short-term imperative.

Manufacturers that invest in their packaging will likely be subject to fewer fees under the upcoming extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. As well as making the producer, not the taxpayer, responsible for their wasted packaging, EPR will incentivise greater recyclability through the fees it imposes.

Recycled or not, the half a million coffee cups thrown away every day in the UK represent an excessive and unnecessary waste of resources and money. Even with the proposed changes, recycling will only go so far in resolving the problem that disposable packaging represents.

Recycling will help, but it will only go so far. On a recent trip to Switzerland, I saw what the future could look like. Kooky, a Swiss sustainability start-up, enables individuals to continue consuming coffee on the go. The single-use cup is replaced with a reusable one lent out by the retailer for a small deposit, and the rubbish bin is replaced with a network of handy locations around the city to drop the cup off when it is empty.

Start-ups in the UK are also attempting to introduce reuse to the hospitality and retail sectors in dynamic and creative ways. Even large and established businesses recognise that reuse business models can save them money and effort and help to fulfil their customers’ desire for ever greater sustainability.

However, this desire for resource efficiency is not being rewarded by the policy landscape Defra is currently designing. The long-awaited deposit return scheme is limited to single-use drinks containers. EPR currently focuses on driving greater recyclability of packaging.

Reuse is barely acknowledged in these policies, let alone incentivised. As a result, businesses lack the signals required to adopt reuse at scale. As Defra searches for ‘technologically innovative’ and ‘behaviourally informed’ solutions to the coffee cup problem, it should finally put reuse on the front foot rather than in the footnote.

Industry grumbles about the EPR scheme lacking sufficient details to ensure the scheme delivers the desired results are growing louder. If they prove loud enough to provoke the government to pause implementation, ministers should not shy away from using this time to introduce an incentive for reuse to its plans.

Doing so will reduce the need to retrofit a reuse component to it in years to come. At least a decade late to recycling reform, when the government finally admits that recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems, it will realise it is also late to the reuse game.

Elsewhere in Europe, France has a new requirement for fast food establishments to provide customers with reusable plates, cups, and cutlery, forcing industry giants like Burger King to embrace reuse. Germany has opted for a similar policy.

But, with businesses already trying to lead the way, all that really needs to be done is to level the packaging policy playing field. Including reuse within EPR provides an opportunity to do this holistically, rather than tinkering at the edge to correct market failures that the Government has inadvertently helped to create by focusing only on recycling.

If Defra is serious about finding innovative solutions to the problem of unnecessary single-use packaging, it should recognise that it is not its job to create them. The market is already trying to provide them. It is time for the Government ditch its piecemeal efforts and instead create the incentive structure required to let businesses tackle the problem once and for all.

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Kitty Thompson is Nature Programme Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.