Jim Power: Carrying a reusable cup around in case we might fancy a takeaway coffee is not practical
The default position for many policymakers and opinion-formers in Ireland is based on a belief system that if all else fails, we can just slap a tax on it. This is precisely the case with the proposed 20 cent levy on takeaway coffee sold in single-use disposable cups.
It effectively means that a customer who purchases a hot drink in a single-use disposable cup will be charged the levy at the point of sale, and those who choose to purchase that drink in a reusable cup will not be charged the levy.
Let there be no doubt about it: this proposal is just another tax on an already highly taxed and highly pressurised consumer. A 20-cent levy on takeaway coffee will add around 6 per cent to the price of a takeaway coffee. Between January 2021 and October 2023, the average consumer price of coffee at the retail level has increased by almost 22 per cent.
The proposed levy will just add to the already very high cost of living in this country and would be highly unlikely to achieve its desired objectives.
Rationally, one cannot argue with the need to address the problems of litter and the basic premise of a circular economy. However, the big question is if the proposed 20 cent levy would deliver behavioural change and actually reduce litter, or indeed if it would drive the circular economy agenda?
I am sceptical. The success of the plastic bag levy in fashioning behavioural change and reducing litter caused by discarded plastic bags is often pointed to – with justification – as an example of an initiative that worked. Most of us now do our shopping with a reusable shopping bag, which we keep in the boot of the car.
A discretionary purchase of a cup of coffee is unlikely to be planned with the same level of precision as going out to do the grocery shopping. It would mean carrying a reusable cup with us whenever we might fancy popping in to get a takeaway coffee. This is just not practical.
The Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) that was used to justify the latte levy was based on an assumption that reusable cups already account for 25 per cent of takeaway coffee sales. I surveyed over 2,200 vendors of takeaway coffee and the results suggest an average of 1.7 per cent for reusable cups.
Basing a policy initiative on such a flawed assumption does not stand up to the scrutiny of evidenced-based policymaking. There are many other flaws in the flimsy RIA that was conducted.
The international evidence on these levies is not terribly compelling either. Vancouver imposed a levy of CAD 0.25 on single use beverage cups in 2022, but this was repealed just over a year later, because it was regarded as punitive and ineffective.
Single-use coffee cups that contain little or no plastic can be composted or recycled and do appear to be more environmentally friendly than many reusable cups that are often made of cheap plastic. It is important, though, that single-use cups are labelled properly in relation to their compostability or recyclability, as there is considerable consumer confusion about what to do with single-use cups.
Ireland has a poor track record in recycling. Our society is characterised by a litter culture. Just walk around urban and rural areas to see how good we are at littering. Coffee cups do not represent a significant part of the problem and account for a tiny proportion of litter.
Rather than making scapegoats out of people who enjoy a takeaway coffee, Government should focus on the real issues such as fines for littering; proper recycling infrastructure; and consumer education. A 20-cent levy has appeal for the zealots, but it will not solve the litter problem.
Rather it will damage coffee retailers, who have a plethora of other challenges to deal with; and most importantly will just extract more money from the long-suffering consumer.
Jim Power is an economist who conducted research on the disposable coffee cup behalf of the Irish Paper Packaging Circularity Alliance (IPPCA)
Kevin O’Sullivan: Prudent arrangements around reusable cups may even reduce costs and become a source of revenue for coffee shops
Research repeatedly indicates Irish people are concerned about the environment and increasingly about climate breakdown. Critically, they understand the human input to worsening pollution in its multiple guises.
Yet there is a behavioural disconnect which means this concern is not easily translated into pragmatic, on-the-ground actions that are in the best interests of Planet Earth. This is particularly the case with greenhouse gas emissions; water pollution and litter – including the almost omnipresent disposable coffee cup.
Economic “nudges” such as carbon taxes, polluter pays fines, the plastic bay levy and frank messaging on consequences can tip the balance in the right direction – as does underlining the merits of collective action in maintaining sustainable places to live, to work and to experience nature/the great outdoors.
There is every indication a modest 20 cent tax on disposable coffee cups – while exempting reusable cups – will provide the same prompt, and ultimately ensure a lasting solution. It aims to deter consumers from dumping half a million of them every day, according to its defenders, notably the Government and its implementer, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
That estimate is likely to be conservative, as we are a country with an indisputably poor environmental record with widespread indications of a cross-generational, throwaway culture that too often takes the convenient unsustainable option.
Coffee cups are “typically” made of composite materials that are difficult to recycle, while Environmental Protection Agency surveys have found them in waste, recycling and compost bins, indicating consumers have problems disposing of them.
To the frustration of many operators, the levy applies to compostable, biodegradable and recyclable cups. Despite their sustainability credentials, in some cases they take too long to decompose or are made in combination with other materials that are even more persistent and invariably difficult to separate out, particularly when plastics are part of the product.
All too often disposable coffee cups are ending up in landfills or dispatched to incinerators which is a contradiction in the emerging age of circularity, which demands more effective action on climate change, waste, pollution and the collapse of nature. This is far more significant than simply reducing, repairing and reusing stuff. It’s an economywide transition.
Nobody is advocating heaping unnecessary costs by way of the so-called latte levy on businesses that might risk job losses. Contrary to what it has been claimed by some outlets, in my view it does deal with the waste problem. Prudent arrangements around reusable cups may even reduce costs and become a source of increased revenue. Other outlets have shown using a reusable cup routinely can be done without increasing energy and water demand.
There is a palpable sense that reluctance to run with this sustainable option is typical resistance to change away from old ways of doing things. The same anxieties were highlighted in advance of a new deposit return scheme on bottles (plastic and glass) and cans (aluminium and tin) due to go live across Ireland next February. Lidl Ireland confirmed recently it has reached 2 million bottles and cans collected through its deposit return machines currently on trial in two stores in Dublin and Claremorris. This represents €200,000 already paid out to customers through vouchers which can be redeemed in store.
A group in Killarney, meanwhile, is rolling out plans to axe disposable cups in an effort to cut waste at the area’s nearby national park, one of the Ireland’s top tourist attractions. It is a response to voluntary clean-ups which found coffee cups were one of the most common forms of waste found in the amenity. Customers at 25 cafes and 21 hotels can pay a €2 deposit on a reusable cup, repayable on return to any of the 46 outlets, or more than 350 around the State.
The latte levy should proceed as outlined and be supported by initiatives at local level such as the commendable efforts being deployed in Killarney. Sustainability principles dictate the revenues generated should be ring-fenced for scaling up anti-litter initiatives and to restore depleted nature.