UK's 3 billion waste coffee cups a year: let those who profit pay the cost

Coffee cup. Photo: Kordite via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Coffee cup. Photo: Kordite via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Our insatiable appetite for expensive coffee is causing a global trail of waste and destruction, writes Donnachadh McCarthy. Following the successful campaign for a 5p plastic bag levy, it's time to move on to a much larger 25p levy on disposable coffee cups - making those that profit from the waste carry the cost of its disposal.
With just a simple coffee we leave a colossal trail of waste in our wake. We bulldoze forests containing well over 350,000 trees each year just for the paper in the UK's disposable coffee mug epidemic.

I was interviewed on BBC Radio Wales this morning about a proposal to bring in a disposable 25p coffee cup levy.

The other guest was a representative for the corrupt so called 'Tax Payers Alliance', the climate-action blocking, secretively funded think-tank.

He went apoplectic at the suggestion. And I had a lot of fun pointing out to him that he appeared to want millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money to be spent on every year on coffee cup waste disposal costs.

Over 3 billion such cups are thrown away every year in the UK. And no matter what the coffee shop chains say, the vast majority of them are not recyclable, as the paper is lined with plastic to make the cups more waterproof.

To me the craze for disposable coffee mugs is a classic symbol of our catastrophically destructive consumerism. I have long thought this was the next obvious target to slash pointless wasteful consumerism, once we had won the plastic bag levy.

But then it's not just the plasticated cup that gets thrown away. There are also the billions of plastic lids, plastic or wooden stirrers, paper sugar sachets, carrier bags, paper serviettes and sometimes throwaway multiple cup carriers, all to be seen littering our streets, car parks and river banks!

In fact, the impact is global

With just a simple coffee we leave a colossal trail of waste in our wake. We bulldoze forests containing well over 350,000 trees each year just for the paper in the UK's disposable coffee mug epidemic. That figure would go well over half a million when all the disposable paraphernalia that goes with them is included.

The plastic used for the lids uses enough oil to power a car for 375 million kilometres! And then there is the colossal environmental impact of the 400 billion cups of coffee humanity drinks globally every year!!

Coffee originated in the shadow of the jungle forests of east Africa. But now the two main producers are tropical Brazil and Vietnam. And in the 1970s, the coffee corporations developed sun-grown coffee plantations to replace traditional forest shaded cultivation. As the Rainforest Alliance reports,

"Decades ago, coffee farms were virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. Traditional coffee-growing methods depended on the shade of the forest canopy, which supported local wildlife, migratory birds and better bean quality. In the 1970s the introduction of a new hybrid coffee plant requiring agrochemicals and full sun exposure led many farmers to cut down their forests and abandon their traditional ways. This high-tech approach to farming has devastated lands throughout the tropics."

With just a simple coffee we leave a colossal trail of waste in our wake. We bulldoze forests containing well over 350,000 trees each year just for the paper in the UK's disposable coffee mug epidemic.

This sun-grown coffee now makes up 75% of global production, and has led to the loss of millions of acres of rainforest. Some 2.5 million acres of the precious biodiversity rich rainforests in Central America alone have been lost.

The switch to sun-grown coffee has also led to a massive increase in toxic herbicide usage to maintain bare ground around the coffee shrubs. Many of the herbicides are banned in the EU and US but not in coffee producing countries, putting plantation workers and local populations at risk.

One cup of coffee takes 140 litres of water to produce

The forest removal and open sun cultivation quickly dries out the soil. It thus requires vastly more local water resources, which damages wildlife habitats in rivers and streams and also disastrously leading to soil erosion and flash-flooding downstream - as the UK has recently realised is happening due to tree removal here for hill sheep-farming.

It is estimated that every cup of coffee drunk in the West, uses up to 140 litres of water to produce! This is nearly the same as our entire home daily mains-water usage of 150 litres per person.

As the natural forest insect predators such as birds and bats are also eliminated with sun grown coffee, toxic pesticide usage has also exploded. All of this because we have turned what is a lovely occasional luxury imported treat, intro something we want all day every day!

So what are the solutions?

  • Buy only shade-grown, organic and fair-traded coffee. Rainforest Alliance certification is a good way to be sure of sustainable, soil and forest-friendly farming methods.
  • Bring your own cup if going somewhere that offers only disposable cups. If you're meeting a friend, take two!
  • Avoid coffee cup chains that only do disposables even for sit-down drinks.
  • Give up your daily addiction and instead view it as an occasional luxury treat instead.
  • Buy mint or herbal teas instead.
  • Grow your own easily produced fresh mint, sage or other herbs in your garden or on your window-ledge.
  • Encourage more coffee shops to give a discount for Bring Your Own Mug. Starbucks already give a 25p discount if you do. Use this online form to ask Costa's to do the same!

And call on UK environment groups like Friends of the Earth to launch a wider campaign to introduce a 25p disposable coffee cup levy, with the funds raised going to pay for community / charity renewable energy schemes.

This could raise millions to be invested in such schemes and to provide free renewable energy for community and charity buildings. Like the hugely successful plastic-bag levy, it would slash the numbers by over 80% very quickly, radically reducing the associated environmental destruction.

And it would help to establish an important principle: to hold those who profit by producing waste - like the UK's 3 billion coffee cups a year - responsible for its disposal.

Yes We Can!


Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental campaigner and author.

Book: 'The Prostitute State - How Britain's Democracy Has Been Bought' is available as an E-book and paper (100% recycled).

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