Starbucks announced yesterday that it will introduce a ‘latte levy’ of 5p per paper coffee cup to discourage single-use paper cups. The titan of high-street coffee stores has recently received negative PR for the high sugar content of its drinks, as well as accusations of tax avoidance and fallout from a racism scandal in the US. Taking a lead on sustainability may be a good chance for Starbucks to bolster its forward-thinking credentials.
The Stand office was quick to point out that 5p seems like a fairly small sum – particularly as MPs on the environmental audit committee this year called for a 25p charge. Compared to the 25p discount Starbucks currently offers for customers who bring a reusable cup, a move to charge 5p extra for use of a disposable cup appears to replace a pretty substantial carrot with a fairly small stick.
Yet a three month trial assessed by Hubbub led to a dramatic 126% rise in the use of reusable cups after the new charge. One only has to consider the plastic carrier bag charge, introduced in England in 2015, which has contributed to a reduction of nearly 90% in plastic bag use. Compared to a grocery shop of £30-40, where you might use 15p worth of bags, a 5p charge on a £3 coffee is proportionally fairly high. A 5p levy is likely to be just as effective as at 25p levy, without frustrating customers who already consider Starbucks coffee to be highly priced.
There are, however, further considerations that may slow the uptake of reusable cups. Unlike reusable bags, which take up little space and cost little money, a decent reusable cup is bulky, worth between £5 and £15, and needs to be carried around until it can be washed. Reusable cups are likely only to be taken up by those who purchase takeaway coffee as a daily habit – and not as an occasional treat. However, it is likely that Starbucks’ most loyal and most frequent customers belong to the former group.
Whether or not Starbucks sticks by its 5p levy, I plan to continue using my reusable cup at every opportunity. Reusable cups can be attractive consumer items in a way that a Tesco bag for life hasn’t quite managed. From cups that proclaim your love of your favourite coffee-shop, to my personal favourite William Morris patterned bamboo Ecoffee cups, carrying around a reusable cup can be fashionable, as well as a bit of discreet virtue-signally… The bamboo cups, particularly, taste much better than their wasteful alternative – coffee was never at its best sipped through a small plastic hole out of a paper tumbler.
Overall, a ‘latte levy’ could be a great move for Starbucks in terms of genuine impact on waste, as well as for their public image – and will hopefully encourage other leading coffee brands to follow suit. Right now, 2.5 billion coffee cups are being thrown away each year in the UK. Any step forward is a force for good.