Outlawed coffee cups present fresh design challenge

As MPs put pressure on Government for “Latte levy”, service design opportunities could be brewing but only if a new circular economy coffee cup system can be conceived.

MPs have rallied together to propose outlawing disposable coffee cups by 2023, which poses a great challenge for designers, manufacturers and coffee house chains.

The issue is that although takeaway cups are made of paper, they are lined with polyethylene, which is difficult to remove.

Some 30,000 tonnes of waste is produced from coffee cups in the UK every year.  At this scale, only one in every 400 cups is recycled.

“Latte levy” recommended to Government

This is according to the so called “latte levy” report put forward by the Environmental Audit Committee, which is recommending that the Government makes a series of changes.

Initially the MPs are calling for a 25p levy on all takeaway coffee cups, in a bid to reduce the number of cups that end up in landfill and to increase investment in reprocessing facilities and “binfrastructure”.

Meanwhile a target has been set to ban all throwaway cups by 2023, along with improving labelling to better educate consumers, and making coffee chains take more responsibility by paying towards cup disposal.

2.5bn disposable cups thrown away every year

Environmental Audit Committee chair, Mary Creagh MP says, “The UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year; enough to circle the planet five and a half times. Almost none are recycled and half a million a day are littered. Coffee cup producers and distributors have not taken action to rectify this and Government has sat on its hands.

“The UK’s coffee shop market is expanding rapidly, so we need to kick-start a revolution in recycling. We’re calling for action to reduce the number of single use cups, promote reusable cups over disposable ones and to recycle all coffee cups by 2023.”

Coffee chains have been quick to react to the proposal but the task at hand is huge and any real change will take careful thought.

They will need to work towards long-term systemic circular economy solutions, not just by offering customers choice but by offering them something which fixes the problem.

Starbucks claims it wants to help

Starbucks says that it has already tried to change consumer behaviour by discounting reusable cups at the point of sale. It says that today 1.8% of its customers use reusable cups and that currently it costs £1 to buy one from Starbucks.

The company says it will trial a 5p disposable cup charge in 20-25 of its Central London stores.  “We will investigate the impact of a 5p charge on a paper cup, coupled with prominent marketing of reusable cups, on customer behaviour,” according to a Starbucks spokeswoman who says a trial will begin in February and last for three months.

Starbucks will then share its findings “before taking a view on next steps” she adds.

What’s already being done?

One system designed to tackle the problem already exists. Simply Cups – the UK’s only cup recycling scheme. It is in effect, an end-to-end service designed system, in that the Simply Cups works directly with companies which dispose of cups, by collecting them and getting them to one of two recycling plants in the country where they can be recycled.

Sophie Thomas, RSA director of circular economy and founding director of Thomas Matthews, says: “Companies like Simply Cups are the 1% which has thought about the collection stream.”

There is a lot more that can be done though and the parliamentary proposals present a great opportunity for designers, she feels.

Circular economy solutions

“In the UK we have a very, ‘on-the-go’ coffee drinking culture. Unlike in say Italy, where a small coffee will be drunk quickly in a coffee house from a porcelain cup, in the UK large coffees are drunk in large cups and dumped into a variety of bins.”

She points out that in the UK, while recycling systems are relatively common place, this doesn’t carry on outside the home.

“Coffee cups are high quality. They’re made with strong paper fibres and polyethylene. A coffee cup can never become another coffee cup but it can become something lower grade,” she says.

Thomas also identifies that it would cost around 5p tax per cup to support a cup recycling network on a national scale but she agrees that if the coffee houses had to pay a 25p levy it would be a preventative act that is more likely to effect change.

“The onus should not just be on the consumer. We need to reduce the number of cups out there,” says Thomas.

Can designers work better with brands and manufacturers?

Packaging consultancy Pearlfisher believes that while brands and consumers will be encouraged to think in a more sustainable way as a result of the latte levy, so will designers.

Pearlfisher head of realisation Jen Nathan says, “Designers and design agencies should be playing a significant role in helping to advise their clients on the most sustainable materials and production practices and connecting them with innovative partners and suppliers who are helping to find solutions to challenges like that of takeaway coffee cups.”

Nathan says that Pearlfisher currently works with James Cropper, a paper supplier that is able to separate the polythene lining of paper cups from the paper.

“They recycle the paper fibre for use in premium papers. The polythene lining residue is then moved on to another supplier and recycled into products such as plastic tubing and cable wraps.

“They’ve worked with Selfridges to upcycle disposable coffee cups generated at its Oxford Street headquarters and store, with the resulting paper being used to create its iconic yellow shopping bags in a completely unique closed-loop recycling solution,” she says.

Nathan believes designers need to work with companies like this “to create new processes or find new arenas for existing processes.”

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