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The British Government Just Rejected a Tax on Disposable Coffee Cups

Environment Minister Therese Coffey has rejected plans for a 5p charge on all takeaway coffee cups, which would have worked in a similar way to the plastic bag tax.

Phoebe Hurst

Phoebe Hurst

You really do try to take that special reusable mug your mum got you last Christmas on the morning coffee run, but in the daily struggle to leave the house, it just never seems to happen. And while it would be nice to sip your flat white from an artisan glass tumblers in the seat by the window, it's just so much easier to order one to-go, and dash out of the coffee shop cradling that takeaway mug like a newborn child.

But the problem with "disposable" coffee cups is that they aren't really disposable at all. The plastic film lining is almost impossible to separate from the outer paper layer, meaning that the cups can't be processed at regular recycling plants. They have to be sent to specialist waste facilities—and just two of those exist in the whole of the UK. As a result, fewer than 400 coffee cups from high street coffee chains actually get recycled.

READ MORE: The First Fully Recyclable Coffee Cups Are Being Trialled In the UK

Which is why waste campaigners are criticising the UK Government for failing to introduce a tax on disposable coffee cups. This week, it was reported that ministers had rejected plans for a 5p charge on all takeaway coffee cups, which would have worked in a similar way to the plastic bag tax.

The Liberal Democrats proposed the coffee cup levy in September, saying that it would "increase our awareness of the environmental impact" of grabbing a cup of Joe.

But according to Environment Minister Therese Coffey, coffee shops are already doing enough to cut down on waste. In a letter written to Lib Dem MEP Catherine Beardern, who campaigned for the coffee cup tax, she said: "Many major chains are taking their own action to incentivise environmentally friendly behaviour, for example, offering a discount on drinks if customers bring their own cup."

Currently, Starbucks offers a 25p discount to customers who bring in their own mugs, while Caffe Nero gives double loyalty stamps. Other nationwide coffee chains like Pret a Manger and Costa have no incentives for those who forego disposable cups.

Unsurprisingly, Bearder wasn't happy with the ministers' decision. She told the Guardian: "This letter shows the Conservative government is in complete denial about the scandalous waste caused by throwaway coffee cups. Not only is the minister refusing to act, she is refusing to even acknowledge this as an issue."

What makes it worst, say campaigners, is the fact that the disposable coffee cup tax has a good chance of working. A recent study from Cardiff University found that the 5p bag charge had made people more willing to embrace other waste reduction policies, like reusing an old plastic bottle—or taking their own cup to a coffee shop.

READ MORE: France Just Banned Plastic Cups and Cutlery

Bearder added: "We saw with the 5p plastic bag charge how a small intervention can make a huge difference in cutting unnecessary waste and protecting the environment. The Conservatives should build on this success, not leave it up to the private sector alone when that approach has so clearly failed in the past."

Bearder isn't the only one trying to limit the amount of disposable coffee cups sent to landfill each year. In July, engineer Martin Myerscough unveiled his prototype of the first fully recyclable coffee cup, made with a plastic liner that's only lightly glued in place, meaning it can come away from the paper layer for easier recycling.

But with caffeine-crazy Millennials driving coffee sales to record highs, we may need quite a few of those cups.