The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which has been investigating disposable packaging since 2016, released its findings on January 5, after a December report into plastic bottles. The report also follows on from Chancellor Phillip Hammond's November budget announcement that the UK would "investigate how the tax systems and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste."
The Committee noted that the UK already produces anywhere between 2.5 and 5 billion coffee cups a year, with around 4% littered, and only three facilities in the UK able to process them. However, it acknowledged that focusing on coffee cups is a symbolic act, with potentially compounding effects. The Committee pointed out "[coffee cups'] low recycling rate and the tangibility of this environmental issue", and that "large litter items such as disposable coffee cups often act as ‘beacons of litter".
The report noted: "The Waste Hierarchy and the Polluter Pays principle are
enshrined in EU law", but also that the UK has separately committed to them as "internationally recognised sustainable development principles". Instituting and defending a levy, whether on all single-use plastics or on coffee cups alone, will no doubt be difficult in the uncertain legislative and regulatory environment of the Brexit process.
Although the 25p levy is what has chins wagging, tucked away in the report are a few other thought bubbles - potentially much more significant - that many have overlooked.
The Environmental Audit Committee suggested that "the government sets a target that all single use coffee cups should be recycled by 2023". A 100% recovery rate is an ambitious goal, but the Committee is apparently serious about it, going on to suggest that "if this target is not achieved, the government should ban disposable coffee cups".
The report also touched on Producer Responsibility Obligations schemes in the UK, through which businesses pay about 10% of the cost of waste management. The Committee suggested that those schemes should be updated to include a "varied compliance fee structure" that encourages recyclability, use of reclaimed material, and "raises costs on packaging that is difficult to recycle". Lowering the minimum threshold for inclusion would also mean more SMEs fall under the schemes.
Currently, the UK operates arguably some of the least cost-effective and least efficient producer responsibility schemes in the EU. Significant redress would be needed just to bring it in line with its neighbours.
Given the comparable cultural and legislative environments of the UK and Australia, stakeholders here will be watching developments closely. Submissions from industry, regulators, researchers and others touched on relevant topics such as the effect of the plastic bag levy; on-the-go consumption, and packaging disposal infrastructure; and alternative approaches to coffee cup design or recycling technologies.