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Britain's proposed "latte levy" might lead to a ban on the classic to-go coffee cup.

Charlie Heller
January 05, 2018

British coffee-lovers were met with twin surprises today: first, that the disposable to-go cups served up by nearly every coffee shop out there are not, in fact, recyclable, and second, that Members of Parliament are calling for a 25p (about 34 cent) tax on drinks served in said cups. The move accompanies a report published by the government's environmental audit committee today, which showed that the U.K. produces 30,000 tons of coffee cup waste annually, and opens the door towards potentially banning the cups entirely.

Now, if you, like nearly everyone, were under the impression that those classic paper coffee cups were recyclable, don't feel too bad. The cups technically can be recycled, but their design, which bonds recyclable cardboard to a hard to remove polyethylene liner, can only be handled by specialized facilities outside the standard recycling stream. So while a few large coffee chains do offer cup-specific recycling bins, the report says, only one in 400 cups in the U.K. end up recycled, with half a million going to waste each day.

With so much food wasted worldwide, reduction in food waste has become a major cause for both chefs and the food industry as a whole over the last few years—in the U.S. alone, 133 billion pounds of food is wasted every year. But somewhat less talked about is packaging, which, as detailed by a recent Vox report, presents an equally huge environmental threat, making up 30 percent of America's municipal waste, alongside single-use items like plastic utensils, paper towels, and yep, those coffee cups that add another 10 percent.

The 25p surcharge recommended by the committee, chaired by Labour MP Mary Creagh, is reminiscent of recent taxes and bans on plastic bags around the world, which have achieved huge success in reducing plastic litter by as much as 95 percent in areas enacting them. But will switching to reusable coffee cups be as easy as bringing a canvas bag to the grocery store? And should the cost of doing so be pushed onto customers, or the business using the cups in the first place?

While the 25p "latte levy" has been the most eye-catching part of the committee's recommendation (which, so far, is just a recommendation), it is a bit more holistic than that. The idea is that the charge would be used not just to get people and business to stop using the cups, but to invest in reprocessing facilities. The recommendation also calls for a ban on the cups if they aren't made recyclable by 2023, for coffee chains to pay more towards better cup disposal, and improved labeling to avoid the current confusion on cups' recyclability. Though here's a secret, getting a good reusable travel mug will improve your coffee experience no matter what your government's policy is.