food waste

Starbucks Is Testing a Small Fee for Takeout Coffee Cups in London

Half a million coffee cups go into England’s trash each day. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

A month ago, the British Parliament suggested imposing a “latte levy” on coffee served in nonrecyclable paper cups, the idea basically being that somebody’s gotta pay the rent, so to speak, on the 2.5 billion cups that go into England’s landfills each year. A 35-cent tax per cup would help offset the U.K.’s waste-management and recycling costs, and would also be annoying enough, legislators figured, that customers would think twice before paying it.

This proposal elicited less-than-positive feelings from the public, but several coffeehouse chains pledged to do their part in cutting down on their paper waste. Starbucks answered with arguably the boldest initiative, and it rolls out today: 35 cafés in London have now instituted a five-pence (which works out to seven cents) charge on each to-go hot drink. The trial lasts for three months, at which point Starbucks has pledged to “share our findings with any interested parties before taking a view on next steps.” It hopes a wallet-friendlier surcharge can help reprogram consumers’ brains, which may struggle to understand why a cup made of paper is such a dire eco-threat. (The reason is, nobody has invented a good one that’s recyclable yet — paper cups typically require a polyethylene liner that’s nearly impossible to remove from the cardboard portion that, of course, is recyclable.)

In its announcement, Starbucks touts its previous environmental stewardship in the U.K., like the 35-cent discount it’s offered since 2008 to customers who bring their own cup. Starbucks upped it to 70 cents last year, but now thinks that consumers respond better to a stick than a carrot when that carrot requires them to carry a travel mug around the rest of the day. “We found [the cup discount] did not move the needle in the way we thought it might,” the chain admits, noting that about 1.8 percent of customers have gravitated over to reusable cups.

Starbucks Is Testing a Small Fee for Takeout Coffee Cups