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Stewart shouldn't be in hot water over coffee

The row about Rory Stewart’s off-the-cuff comment that ”having tackled plastic bags … coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next” does not augur well for the UK’s eventual response to the circular economy (CE) proposals from Brussels.

His observation during a Parliamentary debate was immediately shot down by an official Defra statement that “while the minister acknowledged more needs to be done to recycle coffee cups, there are no plans to tax them”. The Daily Mail went to town.

Stewart had not mentioned taxing paper cups explicitly. But the very mention of a financial or regulatory intervention to help develop a much-needed, resource-efficient marketplace is a no-no for this Government. It is such a shame because it is going to take something like that to give the CE package some traction.

But this is no surprise. The limited reaction from Stewart and UK officials to Brussels so far leaves no doubt they think that voluntary, red tape-lite, measures are the way to go. They have their influential supporters, such as Liz Goodwin at WRAP, but MRW backs those calling for more ‘pull mechanisms’, such as VAT relief for manufacturers using recycled materials or specified recycled content.

We need a regime, regulated or otherwise, to close the loop

Back to the cups row, which kicked off after publicity for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Paper Cups’ campaign. We dispose of 2.5 billion of them each year. Two facilities in the UK are capable of breaking down the plastic-paper composite and recycling the constituent parts. It is done under the umbrella of Simply Cups, whose creation and attempts to grow in the past two years MRW has reported in detail.

But the plants are recycling less than 1% of the cups. What’s to be done? A levy per cup cannot have the same goal as the charge on plastic bags. The 5p single-use bag charge is intended to cut the number given out by large retailers, and it has done the job (but don’t get me started on England’s exemption for SMEs).

There is no logic, however, in charging 5p to persuade me to drink fewer filter coffees, flat whites and cappucinos. Rather we need a regime, regulated or otherwise, to close the loop.

Simply Cups founder Peter Goodwin is not advocating a coffee cup tax but his business – and the industry as a whole – needs the coffee outlets to engage with this ridiculous amount of waste they generate to understand what they have created and how they can play their part.

They are big businesses – and a sector that has mushroomed. According to a Daily Telegraph report from December 2015, quoting the Local Data Company, there are more than 5,000 major coffee shop branches across the UK.

Wasn’t it great to see a decent debate about recycling on the front pages?

Costa, the UK’s largest coffee shop chain, has more than 1,500 stores, around twice as many as in 2010. Wild Bean Cafe, located at BP service stations, has grown from 11 stores five years ago to 288. There are a similar number of Pret A Manger locations, an increase of around 50% from 2010, while Caffe Nero has boosted its presence by 44% to 508 branches and Starbucks has grown by a fifth to 719 locations.

While some of these may have been shocked by the publicity to learn that their cups are not generally recycled, some may have been cosily hiding behind a public expectation that they are.

As Goodwin points out, the real question is just how committed everyone is to dealing with this issue – and is there sufficient consumer demand to disrupt the status quo?

The customer may be king, but what if popular pressure is not sufficient to create a better recycling marketplace? That’s when we may need Stewart’s help to bring it about, rather than a shameful knee-jerk rejection from Defra – or more likely one of the ministers’ special advisers.

You may not agree with any the above – and I’d love to hear any reactions. But wasn’t it great to see a decent debate about recycling on the front pages?

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