Ministers question 'latte levy' on cups

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Barista making coffeeImage source, Getty Images

A proposal to impose a so-called latte levy on throwaway coffee cups has been questioned by the government.

MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) had suggested a charge of 25p for disposable coffee cups to reduce their use.

But ministers say it is better for shops to offer voluntary discounts to customers bringing their own cups.

The EAC says the government's response suggests it is not serious about its promise to tackle plastic litter.

Committee chairwoman Mary Creagh said: "The UK's throwaway culture is having a devastating impact on our streets, beaches and seas. Our report recommended practical solutions to the disposable packaging crisis.

"The government's response shows that despite warm words they plan no real action."

She said evidence to the committee showed charges work better than discounts for reducing the use of non-recyclable materials - as was the case with the plastic bag charge.

"By choosing to favour voluntary discounts, the government is ignoring the evidence about what works," she said.

The government said it was serious about the issue - but did not want to jump to hasty conclusions.

Media caption,

Some fear the cost of the levy will be passed on to the consumer

Addressing the EAC's view that charges were more effective than discounts, the government acknowledged that the 5p cost of plastic bags had resulted in fewer being sold. This was the kind of incentive it "could consider". But it added: "We are pleased that major coffee retail chains are taking action to reduce single-use coffee cups by offering discounts to customers with reusable cups and are putting in place the infrastructure to ensure cups can be collected for recycling.

"The government would like to see this service offered by all businesses selling disposable coffee cups."

In its response, it also said: "Coffee cups make up 0.7% of total paper packaging waste in the UK. We believe it is important to look at the packaging and waste management system as a whole."

The government did signal an intent to reform what's known as the "producer responsibility" system in which packaging firms chip in towards the cost of recycling technology.

A report this week from the waste consultancy Eunomia said the industry was exaggerating the waste it recycles and paying far too little towards the £2.8bn cost to households of collecting and dealing with waste.

The alterative to throwaway cups

Many of the large coffee shop chains in the UK now offer customers incentives to use reusable cups rather than the throwaway kind.

Pret a Manger for example offers a 50p discount while Costa Coffee and Starbucks will knock 25p off.

But studies suggest people are more likely to respond to extra charges, for example the plastic bag charge, than they are to discounts.

With this in mind, Starbucks is also running a three month trial in some of its central London stores charging those using throwaway cups an extra 5p.

The National Audit Office is launching a review of the government's oversight of the system, following a request from the Environmental Audit Committee, which has concerns that it is opaque, and could be subject to fraud and non-compliance.

The government said the idea of a latte tax would be considered as part of a call for evidence on single-use plastics.

That initiative was promised by the chancellor in the autumn budget but it hasn't happened yet.

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