12 January 2018 | by Dr Jan Maskell
To tax or not to tax, that is the question.
The issue of plastic waste is currently in the news. Blue Planet 2 highlighted the extent of plastic pollution in our oceans. The Government have even caught on to the idea that we need to launch a war on plastic in their 25-year plan for the environment in England drawn up by Michael Gove’s environment department
Modern life is almost unthinkable without plastic, but there is a catch. Some of the properties that make it so useful, like its low cost, light weight and durability, also make it hard to dispose of.
Many more people are now aware that millions of tonnes of this waste end up in the oceans. Birds, and sea life get tangled in plastic bags or abandoned fishing equipment, or they die from eating plastic debris. It is forecast that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Larger pieces of plastic break down over time into tiny particles called microplastic, which then forms a sort of plastic soup. These particles then enter the food chain, becoming concentrated – and can end up on our plates.
There are many contributors to this plague of plastic and legislation has already cut down the number of plastic bags used through the 5p charge and banning microbeads in cosmetics. The Governments plan for the environment includes the promise to extend the hugely successful 5p levy on plastic bags to smaller shops, plastic free aisles in supermarkets, new research funding for “plastics innovation”, and aid to help developing nations deal with their plastic waste.
Another promise is to seek evidence on a possible charge on single-use plastic containers.
Around 2.5 billion disposable cups are thrown away each year in the UK - the equivalent of 5,000 every minute. These cups are difficult to recycle or compost as they are usually a blend of cardboard and plastic to make them waterproof.
The so-called ‘latte levy’ would put a suggested tax of 25p on each cup. What difference would this make to the waste created currently from this ‘on the go’ take-drink-dispose culture? What is this charge supposed to achieve? It would raise money, increase the cost of a cuppa – but would this reduce the waste?
A tax on coffee cups may give a nudge to consumers to abandon a throwaway culture, but it won’t bring about lasting change all on its own.
This is another example of treating the result rather than looking back down the line for other more effective actions – the same as just trying to reduce the emissions from cars using fossil fuels rather than improving alternative, low carbon travel options. There are other actions that are necessary to cut down the amount of waste we are generating from our hot drink habits.
Starbucks has said that it will start a three-month trial of a 5p paper cup charge in up to 25 of its London shops from February. What result does it expect to get from this? Will its customers then go next door to its rival which is not putting this charge? Or will more customers invest in reusable cups?
Perhaps the most important question, the one we should start with, is WHY do people want a takeaway cuppa?
Think about the material used to make the cups – it is often not currently degradable material. Therefore, we need to invest more in sustainable product design, use more recyclable materials and be better at actually recycling cups at the end of their life. But some of this requires long term research and investment – where is the incentive? More importantly, this solution still creates waste – even if it is compostable or recyclable.
Several of the chains – such as Costa, Pret a Manger and Starbucks, do offer an incentive rather than a tax. If we bring our own cups we get a discount.
In 2016 Starbucks did trial applying a 50p discount for customers using their own cups, but it said that this “did not move the needle in the way we thought it might”. Not using disposable cups seems to be the only way to reduce the unnecessary waste.
The difference between the 5p charge for plastic bags and a latte levy is that the consumer then ‘owns’ the plastic bag and can use it again and again – and it can be recycled. With a coffee cup, once you have paid your 25p you have nothing else to show for it – and you still need to dispose of the cup – to landfill!
From a psychological point of view the best approach to achieve the necessary long-term changes in behaviour that would make a difference would be based on nudge theories, making it easier and more natural to bring your own cup, rather than relying on the regular supply of disposal cups to help you feed your craving.
Ideally changes in the pricing structure, as well as regular psychological 'nudges' designed to influence people's behaviour, would make it the new norm to bring your own cup.
And while a tax is one way to make this higher price the norm, we also need to consider other ways to influence how people expect to get their coffee, making it easier, more attractive, and more socially relevant/acceptable to cut down on the waste we create/