Coffee is our daytime drug of choice. For those who drink it, it gets us going in the morning and keeps us going throughout the day. There is even research that indicates that drinking coffee might have some health benefits. Our thirst for the bitter beverage has created a massive, complex industry, one with many social and environmental repercussions. One of those reprecussions is the huge amount of waste created by the disposable cups our to-go lattes come in.
British Members of Parliament are proposing a 25p tax on disposable coffee cups in order to reduce waste and raise money for recycling infrastructures. Despite being made of paper, the majority of these cups are not recyclable. This is because the inside is lined with a thin film of plastic. Most paper recycling facilities don’t have the technology to separate the plastic from the cardboard, which results in billions of carelessly discarded cups ending up in landfill each year. Like plastic drinking straws, food packaging and other single-use containers and utensils, they exist for our convenience in a fast-paced, impatient world. The ‘latte levy’ is meant to make people think twice before buying something that contributes to unnecessary waste. But is a tax the best way to make a positive environmental change?
The proposal to impose the latte levy came just days before the UK government’s ban on microbeads came into effect on January 9, giving long-suffering environmentalists two reasons to rejoice. The impact of plastic on the environment is becoming impossible to ignore. Finally, steps are being taken to reduce our impact on the environment.
There is evidence that a disincentive, like an extra charge, is more effective than an incentive, such as a discount for bringing your own cup. According to official statistics, plastic bag use decreased by 83% since the 5p charge in 2015. Do you remember your initial reaction to the bag charge? I remember mine. Although I knew plastic bags were bad, I still felt irritated when I had to pay for the bag in which to carry my food home from the shop. Gradually, though, I was less and less irritated. The bag charge was here to stay. It was a minor inconvenience but every time I was asked at the supermarket if I wanted to buy a carrier bag, I was forced to make a choice, and was ultimately reminded of why that choice was important. I started making an effort to bring my own bags. Actually, effort is the wrong word. It was more of a slight recalibration of habits. All I had to do was remind myself to put a rolled-up canvas bag in my handbag before I left the house. The point is, we can change our habits. We can sacrifice little conveniences, and we will discover that our lives are not that much worse because of it. All the cup tax is, is a kick up the butt to help us change those habits. This is about us re-evaluating what is important. Is it really that important to have the convenience of getting a hot drink to go? Habits can change without causing too much disruption to our happiness and wellbeing.
One of the biggest criticisms of the latte levy is that the government is essentially looking for a source of funding to develop a better infrastructure for recycling takeaway cups. They want to tackle the cup problem in two ways: 1) use the extra charge to make it less convenient for people to buy hot drinks in wasteful cups, and 2) use the extra money from those people who DO buy the cups, to pay for better recycling technologies and systems. Although it’s a noble cause, they are asking customers to foot the bill. It’s a question of distribution of funds, and the tax is hard to justify in a climate where large corporations are not being held to account on tax evasion. Could this source of funding not come from somewhere else?
Another argument against the levy sides with small, independent coffee shops. If the latte levy’s aim is to dissuade customers from buying takeaway coffees, that could mean a loss of customers for these small cafes, whose business depends on takeaway culture. It is beyond the capabilities of coffee sellers to provide solutions for more eco-friendly cups. They’re stuck with what exists, and most of what exists is not eco-friendly. This is the culture we live in. People have habits and wants, and cafes are simply catering to those wants. A restriction on customers’ freedoms and whims could hit coffee shops’ profits.
Lastly, how hard is it, really, to develop a fully recyclable or biodegradable takeaway cup? For a civilisation that has put humans on the moon, invented the internet and found cures for illnesses that killed hundreds of thousands, why haven’t we developed a product that would help keep the only planet we’ve got, clean?
Change imposed from above is always met with criticism, sometimes outrage. Especially when that change requires that ordinary people pay more for something. A cynical but not invalid argument against the tax is that the government is using an environmental problem to boost their image, to the detriment of the taxpayer. Typical politicians (eye roll). However, we can sit here and criticise the government, but this won’t get us very far. When it comes to plastic pollution and waste, urgent change is needed. If a disincentive in the form of a cup tax is needed to make that change happen, then I think we can all handle a little shift in our habits. If you like getting your morning caffeine to go, and you love supporting your local coffee shop, invest in a reusable cup. Get a small, lightweight one, and take it with you when you go out. Alternatively, consider having your coffee to drink in. A coffee in a relaxed café environment is a great way to slow down for a few minutes.
There are many problems that need politicians’ attention. The environment is one of them, and it is one that often gets neglected. The fact that it’s got their attention is a really good thing. The fact that plastic bags have become less ubiquitous is a really good thing. The fact that they are talking about doing the same with disposable cups is a good thing. For the sake of the planet, we have to learn to live without them.
Photo: Honey Fangs // Unsplash