A throwaway problem

Caoimhe Gordon reports on the proposed governmental levy of 10 to 15 cent on each takeaway drink

During my youthful musings on the collegiate version of myself, I always pictured myself striding with purpose through the bustling city streets, clutching a takeaway cup of caffeinated fuel to get myself through the day.

Despite the fact that I did not drink coffee at this point in my life, I had already deemed the takeaway coffee cup necessary to complete the image of my future self.

It was the recent realisation that after I had quashed the caffeine cravings, I had left in my wake an item that would remain on the earth for 30 more years. Yes, the humble coffee cup, discarded moments after completion without further thought, takes 30 years to decompose. With the increased public realisation of the sheer volume of disposable coffee cups being used daily, the suggestion of an aptly titled ‘latte levy’ by the governments both here and in the UK has emerged.

The problem with the omnipresent disposable cup is that they contain a plastic lining within them, rendering them waterproof. This also results in a knock-on effect of their inability to be recycled by the majority of centres.

The only options remaining include incineration or being thrown into a landfill, neither of which will assist the environment. The New York Times reported that the consumers featured in a 2011 survey that encompassed the misunderstandings the public have about the realities of this situation.

80% believe that disposable cups are being recycled when in reality, a mere 0.25% of them actually are being recycled. This levy intends to banish this myth. Furthermore, the carefree toss of a disposable cup into the recycling bin also has a knock-on negative effect on the other materials that can be recycled – the damp remnants of the morning Americano can hamper the recycling process.

The cost

What exactly will this levy entail? The moves by the Irish government echo that of the plastic bag levy which was introduced back in 2002. The initial targets for this addition to the price of coffee would be around 10 to 15 cent per cup. This extra charge would be eradicated completely if a consumer opts to bring their own reusable cup and presents it upon ordering their takeaway beverage of choice.

In an era where we are constantly urged to reduce plastic waste, the government remains hopeful that the possibility of such a levy will have as wide an effect upon the general public as the plastic bag levy has. Usage fell from an estimated 328 bags per inhabitant per year to just 21, according to an Irish Independent report.

This levy seems even more successful after considering the Government statistic that before the levy, 1.2 billion plastic bags were given out to Irish consumers for free annually. When a similar levy was finally added in the UK at only 5p, single-use bag consumption dropped by 85%. As approximately two million cups are sent to landfill daily, a similar revolution seems necessary.

For most nowadays, it is only in the direst situations that it is worth considering parting with that 15c and it often seems strange in foreign countries to be presented with plastic bags without charge in supermarkets. Efforts to transform the collective attitude to eschew the possibility of paying more for a disposable cup will begin with such a levy.

The UK has also considered the possibility of introducing a similar 25p levy on disposable cups and as the number of coffee shops continue to rise there, so too are the expected numbers of discarded coffee cups. The majority of retailers seem to be onboard with the move, with Starbucks already preparing a 5p-per-cup trial scheme in 25 of its 202 London stores for the coming months.

With 884 stores across the UK and a surprising 65 in Ireland, Starbucks already offers a discount for those using reusable cups with many set to follow suit. The wide availability of reusable coffee mugs has already led to an increase in sales in the UK, following the announcement of the attack on single use plastics as well as the popularity of environmental documentaries, such as Blue Planet.

Other coffee chains have also aimed to eliminate other single use plastic items. Costa Coffee notes the usage of 19 million plastic straws a year and 26 million straws with spoons on the end (‘sproons’). This is being phased out throughout 2018  to be replaced eventually with a recyclable substitute.


Minister for the Environment Dennis Naughton is also hopeful that a whole plethora of measures – not just a levy – will be introduced to curb the rising numbers of disposable cups in Ireland. Such measures including financial incentives were recently announced, and talks with Insomnia and Supermac’s to provide such incentives to their many customers were conducted lately.

Naughton imagines a bright future involving a nationwide scheme: “Some of the areas that we will be looking at involve the potential for local authorities becoming part of a nationwide scheme where customers could sign up, for a small fee, in order to return their used reusable cup to participating cafés and bakeries, and get their next coffee served in another reusable cup.”

This echoes the trial in the German city of Freiburg after an astounding 12 million cups a year were wasted there annually. In 2017, the metaphorically and literally green Freiburg cup was released and already 14,000 are being used by the citizens of the city.

The cup comes with a disposable lid that customers obtain with a €1 deposit. This deposit can be collected when the customer returns the cup to any of the 100 businesses signed up to the scheme- not just the business from which the original beverage was purchased. Participating coffee shops have a green sticker on the window.

This move has now been replicated worldwide, including by the Pav, which is now attempting to introduce a deposit scheme involving reusable cups to curb the plastic waste that is currently an issue for the student bar.

The end of the disposable coffee cup may be in sight. No official starting date for the levy has been introduced but as the price of coffee in Dublin continues to climb, it seems like an reusable coffee cup would be a worthy investment for the year ahead. Now as coffee connoisseurs continue to pound the pavement with purpose – environmental cup in hand – they can be comfortable in the knowledge that they are reducing their environmental footprint.