coffee cost the earth

In a bid to reduce consumer waste, MPs have suggested the introduction of a 25p surcharge on disposable coffee cups – nicknamed the “latte levy”. It comes at a time when consumption and waste is under more scrutiny than ever, with supermarkets pledging to go plastic-free, grassroots movements pushing for better environment-friendly choices and documentaries broadcasting the damaging effects humanity has had on the oceans.

These campaigns, while obviously designed to encourage society in a better direction, raise some interesting debates.

The Latte Levy

Firstly, what is it that the latte levy is trying to achieve? Well, that’s simple – it’s to reduce the amount of coffee cups in landfill. Much like the extra 5p we now pay for plastic bags at the supermarket, the added 25p to our cup of joe is supposed to make us question whether we really need that extra packaging. Some coffee shops already offer this incentive in reverse, with Pret notably giving their customers a 50p discount for bringing their own reusable flask.

It’s a little financial nudge to make us less wasteful (the behavioural principle behind it is actually called “nudge theory”, and while I don’t have time to discuss it here, it really is a rather interesting concept). Of course, this only comes into effect at the till. If you’ve forgotten to bring an old carrier bag from home then you might be able to manage an armful of groceries to your car. If you forget your reusable coffee cup, I doubt anyone will pour it straight into your cupped hands.

However, my gripe with this whole latte levy is that it’s based on a bit of a misconception – that coffee cups aren’t recyclable; something about the wax coating, or the composite paper/plastic material they’re made from. Well, frustratingly, coffee cups are recyclable, it’s just that it’s a bit more complicated to work with than conventional paper and most UK recycling facilities aren’t equipped to process them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reducing waste. It just strikes me that if recycling is such a big issue, building up some funding at our sub-par waste-processing centres would make for a nice two-pronged approach.

Biodegradable packaging

On my social media feed, I was recently confronted with a plea: “Sign our petition to force UK retailers to use biodegradable packaging!”

It seems straightforward – if we’re burying all of our rubbish in landfill, why not make it out of materials which will safely decompose into the earth? Well, after reading into the problem a little bit, I had to decline adding my signature to the petition, because biodegradable materials don’t actually break down in landfill. Rubbish gets buried too deep and too densely-packed for efficient decomposition to take place, and in an oxygen-starved environment, only generates methane gas which, you may be aware, is pretty bad news.

To make biodegradable packaging a noble pursuit, people would have to be more prepared (or able) to keep a compost heap in their back garden where packaging could safely degrade. This isn’t an impossible ask, but I don’t think enough people realise that they could or should do be doing it. Simply switching plastics to paper isn’t going to make enough of a difference.

The onus is also not entirely on the supermarkets. Food brands should be focused on presenting entirely sustainable products to the market and treating it like a new norm, as should packaging manufacturers. There’s a lot of hype about luxurious organic products (and the best packaging to show them off), but not enough effort throughout the supply chain to make environmentally-friendly packaging the standard, despite the fact it’s virtually the same.

What is the solution?

As much as we’d like to believe that charging an extra 25p for a cup is the secret to eliminating waste, the solution isn’t as simple as that.

To start with, there needs to be more social marketing about reusing the products that we already have. Rather than getting a nudge about plastic bags (or coffee cups) at the till, we need to be reminded to bring our bag-for-life or personal flask before we leave the house – reminded so often that it becomes second nature, like our keys or phone. When this happens, nobody will need a new plastic bag or coffee cup, and the amount of waste will decline.

There should be better education about packaging, too. We need to realise, collectively, that switching from plastic trays to cardboard isn’t going to make a difference if we simply chuck it into landfill anyway. Guidance about the best way to dispose of things, which packaging we should avoid and how to support local recycling schemes is essential.

Finally, having access to viable alternatives to environmentally-unfriendly trays and cartons is the only way we will break the habit of using plastics. This relies on new technology being brought to supermarket shelves, forced through by the whole supply chain, and new entrants to the market trusting that consumers would prefer to buy an organically, sustainably packaged item – even if there’s an expense for doing so.

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