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Coffey: innovation is best way to tackle on-the-go consumption

Defra resource minister Therese Coffey praised industry innovation and was cautious on the need for regulation to increase the recycling of disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles when quizzed by MPs.

She told the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that “industry is coming forwards with proposals” to tackle issues around increasing the recycling of drinks containers. She highlighted the work of Costa Coffee in rolling out an in-house recycling scheme in February, as well as a group of brands including Pret a Manger and McDonalds signing up to boost paper cup recycling in October.

Coffey noted that in her talks with industry, some brands had more of an issue with using recycled plastics from deposit return schemes (DRSs) than others. For example, Coca-Cola, which has previously lobbied against such a scheme and then made a U-turn on the issue earlier this year, said the dark colour of its product meant it did not necessarily need to have perfectly clear plastic whereas some of the bottled water companies insisted they needed very clear plastic.

Stressing that innovation was the best way to tackle the UK’s on-the-go consumption habits, the Defra minister highlighted the Government’s Litter Innovation Fund. This is a £500,000 pot aimed at helping to spur solutions to litter and fly-tipping issues, such as smart bin sensors and apps. She said Defra plans to make the awards before the end of the year.

The EAC repeatedly challenged Coffey over the lack of clear Government policy that could tackle the issue of disposable coffee cups and bottles.

Topics raised by the committee included DRSs for plastic bottles, levies for coffee cups that cannot be widely recycled, and other potential levers such as increasing the landfill tax above the planned rises in line with inflation, producer responsibility compliance schemes and setting out post-2020 recycling targets.

Brighton & Hove MP Caroline Lucas challenged Coffey on a leaked EU Commission report which stated that a better use of economic instruments and taxation was needed to improve recycling.

Although Coffey hailed the success of the plastic bag levy, she would not be drawn on any details for future policy. She said she was in the process of gathering data and evidence for policy formation. “We don’t know that regulation is the best way to achieve it [improved recycling rates],” she said.

She did indicate that her aim was to have more recycling of coffee cups rather than more reuse, saying that, so far, discounts for bringing your own cup “had not moved the market”. She declined to state a target for the increased recycling of cups, saying that was to come in future policy announcements.

On DRSs, Coffey mentioned a scheme launched by Tesco in the 1990s that did not work and, because the country has high rates of on-the-go consumption, it meant complexity to the issue of designing a DRS.

She said a post-2020 recycling target would be “higher than it is today” but that it would not be announced until next year.

Currently there are only two recycling centres in the UK that can process coffee cups with plastic liners and recycle them. Around 2.5 billion such cups are sent to landfill or incinerated each year – only 0.25% are recycled.

In the UK, around 15 million plastic bottles are sent to landfill or incinerated each day. The EAC inquiry runs alongside a consultation on plastic bottle DRSs for England, which ends on 20 November.

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