Disposable coffee cups are choking the environment. In the United Kingdom alone, an estimated 2.5 billion cups are used and thrown away each year, with just 0.25% (one in 400) being recycled.

These cups are typically made from paper lined with plastic, but the plastic lining cannot be removed by most recycling facilities.

An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are discarded in the UK each year
Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Khursheed

‘Latte levy’

This has led the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee to recommend a minimum 25p ($0.35) levy be introduced on all disposable cups in the country.

Revenue raised “should be used to invest in reprocessing facilities and ‘infrastructure’ to ensure that the remaining disposable cups are recycled”, the committee said.

Now, Starbucks is trialling the “latte levy” across 35 of its London outlets for three months.

While the chain will only add a 5p ($0.07) charge to takeaway cups, revenue earned will go to environmental charity Hubbub, which is working alongside Starbucks.

5p will automatically be added on to any paper cup purchase in these 35 stores in the U.K.
Image: Starbucks

Simon Redfern, vice-president of communications at Starbucks Europe, said: “We’re really interested in working with Hubbub to see how this charge could help to change behaviour and help to reduce waste.”

The move was welcomed by many, though some questioned Starbucks’ motives, with one person telling BBC Breakfast he did not think the charge would make any difference to the environment.

Plastic bag principle

Yet a similar charge on plastic bags has reaped rewards in the UK. In 2015, it became mandatory for companies with 250 or more full-time employees to charge 5p for a bag. Since the law was introduced, the use of plastic bags has fallen by around 85%, with Starbucks hoping its scheme will achieve similar results.

Redfern said: “We’re hoping that this charge will remind customers to rethink their use of single-use plastic-lined cups, as it has with plastic bags.”

Research for Starbucks shows 48% of customers said they would carry a reusable cup to avoid the additional charge.

Of course, the ideal solution would be for people to bring their own reusable coffee cup. In the UK, a number of major coffee shop chains, including Starbucks, actually offer customers a discount if they do so.

The only issue is, people hardly ever seem to bring their own cups to coffee shops, with Redfern saying only 1.8% of Starbucks’ customers currently take up their offer.

Freiburg has a novel solution

The UK isn’t the only country grappling with the issue of the widespread use of disposable cups. In Germany, for example, an estimated 2.8 billion coffee cups are thrown away every year.

To combat the problem, the German city of Freiburg created the Freiburg Cup, a reusable coffee cup with a disposable lid that customers can obtain with a €1 deposit and return to any one of the 100 participating businesses across the city.

The Freiburg cup can be reused up to 400 times
Image: freiburgcup.de/Michael Bamberger

Stores participating in the scheme have an identifying green sticker in the window. When customers return their cups, these stores will disinfect and reuse them, which can be done up to 400 times.