James Hoffman on disposable coffee cups and why we need a latte levy

McDonald’s coffee cup in the snow Ferry Lane Washingborough nearest McDonald’s Lincoln

Waste is a problem, and yet there is no reason why it should be, other than poor design. We should have closed loops, the output of one process the input to the another, natural materials or man made which emulate these natural cycles.

In the natural world there is no such thing as waste, in ancient woodlands, we see not the accumulation of waste neither in time nor space.

Plastic is a modern day curse, unlike glass or steel or aluminium, it cannot be recycled, it is down-cycled, which at best delays its one way trip to landfill or incineration, or finds it way into the oceans.

We have beaches covered in plastic, we have ocean vortexes that concentrate plastic, one such being the Sargasso Sea.

Plastic eventually breaks down in the sea, the action of the sea and sunlight, to tiny bits of plastic the size of plankton. Small fish eat the plastic mistaking it for plankton, big fish eat the small fish, bigger fish eat the big fish, we eat the fish.

Toxic chemicals leach off the land, attach to the plastic. These too find their way into our diet.

The weight of plastic in the oceans now equals that of plankton.

Plastic is eaten by sea birds and sea turtles. They die with their stomach full of plastic.

By 2050 the weight of plastic in the sea will be equal to the weight of fish.

Domestic waste accounts for less than 5% of total waste. The majority of waste is generated by businesses and industry. We could eliminate domestic waste entirely we would still be left with in excess of 95% of waste. That is not an argument for not dealing with domestic waste, it is an argument for dealing with the other 95%.

Hypocrisy by councils who do nothing themselves to eliminate waste whilst at the same time hectoring the rest of us.

Guildford runs a farmers market, Winchester a street food market. The standard on these markets abysmally low.

County Restaurant in Lincoln is the staff restaurant for employees of Lincolnshire County Council. Once again abysmally low environmental standards. Plastic cups for water, staff using disposable coffee cups, food served in polystyrene burger-style boxes, plastic cutlery.

These councils, in areas which are their responsibility, should be setting high standards for everyone else to follow.

In the UK every year we throw away an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups. The cups appear to be paper, they are not, they are plastic lined, and therein lies the problem, the complexity of construction means they are not recycled.

Yes, these cups can be segregated and aggregated and Chiltern Railways is running a pilot scheme, but all this does is legitimises a system that should not exist. It also relies on the passengers segregating the coffee cups into three separate bins, liquids, lids and cups. The recovered plastic will be down-cycled into branded pens for Chiltern Railways, the loop has not been closed, a delay in the one way trip has been introduced, nothing more.

These takeaway cups may be a tiny percentage of total waste, but it is plastic waste and plastic waste is harmful to the planet.

For the coffee shops, it is major contributor of waste for their sector.

We should consider whole life cycle costs, that is energy, including embedded energy, material used, environmental damage.

Reusable cups, for example KeepCup, can be refilled, coupled with a substantial discount, yes will be used. The best so far is 30% reuse, better than 1%, but nowhere near good enough.

KeepCup has become the industry standard, elegant and meets what can be described as barista friendly. Downside expensive, heavy and a pain to carry around. The target demographic office workers popping out for a coffee.

Compostable cups, ok if I have been shopping, have fresh produce, pop in with my fresh produce, then drop off on a compost heap. But what if not, what then with the compostable cup, throw in the bushes, it is after all compostable? And that assumes it actually composts when thrown on the compost heap, a moot point for the cups claimed to be compostable. At the very least we need honesty, compostable on a compostable heap within a reasonable time, otherwise coffee shops and their clientele trying to do the right thing are being conned, greenwash at best.

Paper composts on a compost heap, it improves the quality of the compost by adding fibre, it also helps to rot down quicker by opening up the compost heap to flow of air.

Reusable cups, compostable cups, address symptoms, not the underlying problems of grab it and go take away consumerist culture.

Which is part of a wider problem of society, the purchase of worthless consumer crap, from extraction, production, six months in our hands, then on to landfill or incineration.

Why do we disrespect coffee? How many hands does coffee pass through from the picker until it finds its way to Square Mile, to then be roasted, then on to a barista at Madame Waffle? We would not dream of pouring a good wine in a plastic cup, swigging it as we walk down the street, why therefore do we treat coffee in this way? Is it not to insult everyone from farm to cup?

Latte levy will not add any extra costs onto coffee shops, apart from the actual cost of administering it. That is why it is called a levy not a tax.

It is avoidable. It is designed to change behaviour.

Starbucks has introduced a 5p levy at a handful of stores in London, and already its clientele are bleating about the cost, threatening to go to Costa. Happy to pay for overpriced undrinkable coffee, and yet bleat about a 5p levy which is avoidable.

Why does any coffee shop wish to have its logo on a something that is bad for the environment, a negative association? Is it not far better to have a branded KeepCup to send out a positive message?

Speciality coffee shops care about the environment, support local businesses, buy direct trade coffee to support the growers.

Apart from being avoidable, the latte levy is or can be cost neutral. Takeaway coffee should cost more than sitting in a coffee shop with a speciality coffee served in glass or plastic. Hike the price of the takeaway coffee by the cost of each takeaway cup, then discount by that amount if brought in a KeepCup or similar for a refill. And yes, should be barista friendly the correct size and clean.

Unless bought in bulk, takeaway coffee cups are not cheap, add the branding, and could be paying 30p a cup, and that is not counting the environmental costs.

A very simple principle, the polluter shall pay.

Baristas and coffee shop owners need to engage in dialogue with their clientele on how to reduce waste, encourage to sit and relax with speciality coffee served in glass or ceramic, discourage grab it and go takeaway consumerist culture.

A latte levy is to the benefit of speciality coffee shops as it matches their philosophy of serving the best coffee, an art and a craft to be appreciated. The losers will be the High Street chains which drain money out of the local economy, many dodge tax, serving undrinkable coffee, whose business model is built on grab it and go takeaway consumerist culture which is why they are lobbying hard behind the scenes to block the 25p latte levy.

And anyone who thinks business as usual, do nothing, is an option, it is they who will have to explain to future generations why they inherited a dead planet.