Analysis: the proposed charge on disposable coffee cups may not be popular, but levies really are effective in changing consumer behaviour

We use a monumental amount of disposable coffee cups in Ireland. A 2018 study by Recycling List Ireland found that we throw out about 200 million cups every year. That's 22,000 cups an hour or 3,700 tonnes of waste each year, equivalent to the weight of 148 humpback whales.

One of the major problems with disposable coffee cups is that they are extremely difficult to recycle. That is because they are the result of merging two very different materials into something new. In this case, it is a merging of polyethylene and paper. The Environmental Protection Agency’s waste characterisation reports consistently show that the majority of composite materials in Irish waste streams are coffee cups.

The polyethylene is the plastic layer on the inside of the cup and allows the cup to hold liquid without falling apart. The outer layer is made of 'wet-strength’ paper, which is paper that has been chemically altered to hold up better when wet. While both of these materials are recyclable by themselves, they become very difficult to recycle once you melt and merge them together.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Ossian Smyth on the proposed levy on disposable coffee cups

Many environmentalists reading this will now be shouting at their screens ‘recycling is not the answer!’ They are, unfortunately, absolutely correct. Recycling is a good thing to do but, even if the materials used were eminently recyclable, the simple truth is that we must transition away from single-use products altogether.

There has been a move recently to replace the polyethylene on the inside of the cups with a compostable plastic made from biological sources, instead of plastics derived from fossil fuels. Many companies are paying significantly more money to buy these cups, considering it a solution.

Unfortunately, bioplastics are not the answer to this problem for a number of reasons. First, where are we going to get the raw materials for 200 million bioplastic coffee cups every year? Between the trees for the paper and the crops for the bioplastics, we would be using a huge amount of land and water that could be put to much better use for things like agriculture, forestry, or areas protected for biodiversity.

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From RTÉ Six One News, retailers say coffee cup levy 'sends wrong message'

Second, most people do not dispose of these cups correctly. Under EU law, the phrase ‘compostable’ means that the material will disintegrate over 12 weeks and completely biodegrade within 6 months in an industrial composting facility. It does not mean you can throw bioplastics on the ground, or in a home compost bin and they will break down. Unless they go in your brown bin, in other words, they might as well be regular plastics.

It is true that the manufacture of bioplastics has a smaller carbon footprint. However, from a waste perspective these cups are almost indistinguishable from their oil-based cousins. If you put them in your general waste bin, they will sit in the landfill just like regular plastics.

Bioplastics definitely have a place in creating a cleaner future, but that place is categorically not inside a coffee cup. It is simply unnecessary. We cannot continue to overconsume resources in the name of convenience.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show in 2018, coffee entrepreneur Colin Harmon on the proposed 'latte levy'

So what is a good solution to this problem? As always, the answer lies within the waste hierarchy. Reduce, reuse and recycle in that order. Reduction is always king. The best way to reduce single-use coffee cups is for everyone to have a reusable cup.

In the same way that energy cannot be created or destroyed, you cannot magic up the materials for disposable cups out of thin air. Even though each coffee cup is small, 200 million add up, and those resources cannot be taken from the planet without consequence. The Earth is not unlimited.

There is another potential solution - the so-called latte levy. The 2022 Circular Economy bill proposes a 20c charge on every disposable coffee cup purchase. This has caused great consternation among coffee retailers, who feel that it puts pressure on their ability to turn a profit.

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From RTÉ Archives, Ray Kennedy reports for RTÉ News on the introduction of the plastic bag levy in 2002

Unfortunately for them, the data suggests that this really is one of the best ways to reduce disposable cup use. The plastic bag levy was introduced in 2002 at 15c per bag, then increased to 22c per bag in 2007. Prior to the introduction of the levy, plastic bags made up 5% of all litter in the country, and were an all too common sight in our natural environment. By 2014, this figure had dropped to 0.13%. In the end, the levy reduced plastic bag use in the country by around 95%. They may not be popular, but it shows that levies really are effective in changing behaviour.

It didn’t dissuade people from making purchases in shops as they obviously still needed the things they were buying. It also generated over €200 million in 12 years, which was earmarked for environmental initiatives around the country.

The same will be true of the latte levy. People will continue to buy coffee. They will simply have to change over to keep cups if they don’t want to pay more for their latte. The knee-jerk reaction to levies like this may be one of anger, but they have been shown to lead to a cleaner and healthier Ireland. That can only be a good thing for all of us. You’re also less likely to pop the lid off a sturdy travel mug and scald yourself!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ