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Blog February 2023

The Latte Levy – what to do when recycling isn’t working

With the nation increasingly keen to grab a coffee on the go, the Irish Government is looking for ways to reduce the environmental impact of single-use disposable coffee cups. Can the new Latte Levy change our coffee drinking habits?

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Stacey Piggott

Senior Digital Marketing Manager

What is the Latte Levy?

Set to come into effect in early 2023, the ‘Latte Levy’ is a new measure proposed by the Irish Government as part of the Circular Economy Bill. It will place a 20-cent charge on all single-use coffee cups with the aim of encouraging consumers to replace disposable cups with a re-usable alternative.

Why are single use cups a problem?

Single-use coffee cups pose a significant environmental challenge. According to a Recycling List Ireland survey, we throw away over 200 million of them each year in Ireland alone – equivalent to the weight of nearly 500 adult elephants.  

It’s an elephantine number and it’s only going to get worse as our coffeeholic population increases. But why is cup disposal causing such a problem, especially when they are recyclable or are they?

Firstly, nearly all coffee cups are made from composite materials with a polyethylene liner inside a wet strength cardboard container. While this material is technically recyclable, in practice there are very few recycling plants capable of separating the two materials and making them suitable for recycling. 

Secondly, most disposable coffee cups are used on the go and instead of being recycled they are placed in the nearest public refuse bin. Thus, the average coffee cup is used for just 5 minutes before it ends up in landfill where the plastic liner may take several decades to decompose. 

More worrying still – the average consumer is surprisingly unaware of the problem. A survey in the UK found that eight in ten consumers believed their coffee cups were being recycled.

In reality, fewer than 1 cup in 400 gets recycled.  

How can legislation help?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to recycle our way out of this problem. We don’t have the specialist collection or recycling infrastructure and even if we did, most cups are tainted with coffee.

In recent years, progressive coffee shops have recognized this problem, offering alternatives such as take back schemes or cups utilizing a bioplastic layer. 

Bioplastics, however, cannot be discarded in a regular recycling bin. Although they are compostable, this strategy relies on informed customers placing empty cups in a compostable organic collection bin – something rarely seen in public spaces. 

So, as the humble paper cup highlights, recycling has its limits. After all, paper cups use finite resources during manufacture; they create carbon emissions; result in public littering; and ultimately impact on biodiversity.

Instead, we need to scale the waste hierarchy, shifting our focus away from recycling towards waste management options that deliver better environmental outcomes – namely reduction and re-use.

That’s why in 2019 the European Union passed a law to ban common single-use plastic items such as cutlery, stirrers and straws, with coffee cups now being targeted in new draft legislation published last month. 

Ireland has taken a lead in this area with the Latte Levy, a policy based on nudge theory. In this case, consumers are presented with a clear choice: either bring a keep cup or pay a levy of 20 cent per coffee to use a disposable cup. 

Not only does this add around 8% to the price of your coffee, but it also comes with a sprinkle of social shaming to encourage positive behavior.

Under the new legislation, the revenue raised from the levy will be ring fenced for environmental protection and climate action measures. 

Does nudge theory work?

If we look at past experiences, the initiative will most likely be a success. Ireland has already pioneered the nudge theory in Europe to drive better environmental outcomes.

The ‘pay by weight’ scheme for household waste is a perfect example. Facilitated by technology such as AMCS automated billing and weighing systems, this scheme encourages customers to reduce their general waste and segregate recyclable and compostable materials. The initiative was so successful that it will be introduced to commercial businesses in Ireland in 2023. 

Similarly, the plastic shopping bag levy, first introduced in 2002, has changed consumer behavior and eliminated the blight of waste plastic bags in our environment. It also raised €200 million in revenue for environmental causes and reduced plastic bag usage from 328 to 14 bags per capita by 2014.

Not everyone is happy with the Latte Levy, however. Many coffee shops are concerned that sales will be adversely impacted, including those that provided compostable cups, which will not be exempt from the charge. 

Will I change my behavior?

In the process of researching this article, I realized the full environmental implications of single use coffee cups and packaging waste. Sure, I have used keep cups in the past, however now I’ll make a conscious effort to take one with me whenever I’m out and about.

But it’s not just coffee on the go that is causing problems. The growth of single-serve coffee machines for use at home is rapidly producing another waste mountain in the form of coffee pods. 

These single-use capsules are usually made of plastic-coated aluminum, which is difficult to separate before being recycled.

According to survey data from Europe and the US, around 60 billion pods are consumed annually across these regions. That means around 120 million pods going to landfill daily. Worse still is the fact that Nespresso and Keurig coffee pods are strong; after all they are designed to withstand the high-pressure coffee making process.

That means plastic containing coffee pods can take as long as 500 years to decompose.

As this staggering statistic illustrates, taking steps to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors, can make a real difference, which is why I’ve also recently made a conscious effort to avoid fast fashion retailers. If you’d like to know more about what prompted my decision, take a look at my colleague Courtney’s article

Reducing consumption and not recycling will always produce the best environmental outcomes. 

No matter how you look at it, we all need to make changes to reduce our impact on the planet. Thinking about the sustainability of the products we buy and the foods we eat is a great way to start making a positive change. How? Just take it one cup of coffee at a time.

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