Two years ago I was in a meeting with companies involved in producing, selling and disposing of take-away coffee cups. Forced into action by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s TV announcement that less than 1% of cups were recycled, the companies were desperately trying to piece together the lifecycle of their cups in order to work out a response. Since the meeting a considerable amount has changed and there is much that can be learned as the government embarks on its war on plastic.

Collaboration is key

The initial meeting highlighted a lack of collaboration along the coffee cup supply chain. This is well on the way to being fixed with manufacturers, retailers and the recycling industry now in close dialogue. The impact has been significant. There are now three sites within the UK that can recycle the existing coffee cups. These facilities mean that the challenge has shifted to putting in place the infrastructure required to collect cups and to create strong communication campaigns informing the public of their existence. A similar joined-up approach will be required to address plastic waste.

Avoid knee-jerk responses

As soon as the news about the lack of recycling of coffee cups went public many companies immediately sought solutions such as moving to compostable cups. This shift has not been the panacea they were hoping. Hubbub is getting a growing number of calls from companies who have discovered that – even when compostable cups are put into food waste containers which is counter-intuitive to most people – they are being stripped out of the recycling waste for incineration or landfill because they do not degrade sufficiently quickly.

There is a danger that we could see similar knee-jerk reactions in the war against plastic with hasty decisions being made to move to alternatives without a full understanding of the wider environmental impact of these changes.

The plastic bag charge impact is not automatically transferable

A common message from the pressure groups has been that the success of the plastic bag charge is transferable to other packaging. Evidence suggests that whilst a levy can make a difference it is unlikely to be quite as impactful as the carrier bag charge. Plastic bags are easy to carry around and the charge moved them from being freely available to costing money. Different dynamics exist for coffee cups. Many chains offer a 25p to a 50p discount for reusable cups but this has only persuaded around 2% of customers to change behaviour.

The 5p ‘Latte Levy’ charge trial that Starbucks is running in 36 stores in partnership with Hubbub has seen a 150% increase in reusable cups. This is obviously a significant up-turn and should be core to any sound environmental approach but it does indicate that reusable cups will not become the mainstream so we have to find the best environmental solution for disposables.

Campaigns need to be driven at a city/town level

The Square Mile Challenge in the heart of London has recycled 5 million coffee cups. This campaign discovered that recycling bins placed in the High Street received a high level of contamination and encouraged littering whereas bins placed in destination points such as offices, educational establishments and transport hubs were more fully used.

This demonstrates that effective campaigns need to be delivered at a local level and that local authorities are the best placed to act as the catalyst (but not the funder) of these activities.

Creating a sustainable economic model is essential

The economic model for recycling coffee cups has been transformed by Costa’s recent announcement that it would support the recycling of 500 million coffee cups a year by paying waste collection firms a supplement of £70 per tonne. This makes recycling viable and incentivises the recycling industry to put in place collection points. Similar changes in economics will be needed to create more recycling facilities for plastics.

Clear communication is essential

With all the mixed messages around coffee cups the public is now deeply confused about whether they can be recycled. The Square Mile Challenge campaign demonstrated that where there is a consistent message and brand backed by all high street retailers people will respond positively. The Square Mile Challenge also demonstrated the need to have consistent messaging across all the recycling bins making it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing. This consistent messaging and infrastructure will be equally required for the war on plastics.

We need better design

The coffee cup saga developed because the cups were designed without considering the full lifecycle of the product. This problem is even more pronounced for plastics where the use of multiple materials makes sustainable disposable highly expensive or impossible. A new approach to product design is required. This will take time to work through the system but is crucial in the creation of a more circular approach.

The development of a more sustainable solution for coffee cups has been a long process with much learning along the way. Many of the lessons will be applicable for the war on plastic and it is to be hoped that government and companies will reflect on these findings as they develop new approaches and policies.