Behavior Change
Criticism Over Coffee Cup Waste Leads to Starbucks Discount, Call to Go Biodegradable

A successful campaign led by chef-turned-activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall drew attention to a big problem: coffee cup waste. Fearnley-Whittingstall claims that in the UK, less than 6 million takeaway hot beverage cups are recycled each year, while 7 million are thrown out each day. As part of his Hugh’s War on Waste initiative (which includes a television show), he took to the streets of London on March 14 in a “coffee cup battle bus.”

In addition to raising awareness among members of the public (and rallying them around the hashtag #wastenot), Fearnley-Whittingstall specifically called on major coffee companies Starbucks and Costa to be more transparent about their cups. He accused the companies of using misleading recycling claims, asserting that the cups cannot by recycled by normal public waste collection services and that less than 1 percent are actually recycled.

“The truth is, [the cups] are barely recyclable at all - in the everyday, commonly understood sense of the word,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “They cannot be recycled through any of the normal public waste collection services - who are consistently diverting them to be incinerated or sent to landfill.

“The coffee companies are taking advantage of the public’s false confidence in their responsible actions. They are actively encouraging the misunderstanding, with claims and statements on their websites. And two biggest, Costa and Starbucks, seem to be the worst culprits.”

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Fearnley-Whittingstall invited both Costa and Starbucks to discuss the issue ahead of the next series of Hugh’s War on Waste episodes. While Costa has not yet agreed, Starbucks did. Following the meeting, Starbucks announced it will be offering a 50p discount to UK customers who bring their own coffee cups; an increase from the existing 25p discount. The change will initially come as a 2-month trial beginning in April.

Meanwhile, British natural plastics manufacturer Biome Bioplastics called for an increased focus on bio-based and biodegradable materials following Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign.

“Many coffee drinkers are acting in good faith, buying products with the recycling logo that they assume are being recycled when put in the bin,” Biome Bioplastics CEO Paul Mines said. “The fact is that much of this mixed plastic waste, such as coffee cups and pods, is simply ending up in increasingly large volumes in landfills across the country.

“There are high-tech materials being produced here in Britain that are available for market. We are currently producing bio-based materials for a number of large brands in the convenience coffee industry – such as cups, lids and pods – which can either be recycled or thrown away to compost with coffee grounds.

“The recent revelations of exactly how much landfill waste is being created shows the urgent need for big brands to accelerate work in new, sustainable materials such as bioplastics, in order to respond to consumer concerns.”

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