LONDON — The humble paper coffee cup, that mainstay of mornings and modern office life, may be going the way of the pull-tab soda can and, perhaps, plastic bags and bottles. The problem, it seems, is that, in their current form, the cups are surprisingly hard to recycle, and therefore contribute an excessive amount to waste streams.
On Friday, a parliamentary committee in Britain issued a reportrecommending a hefty tax of 25 pence, or 34 cents, for every cup sold. Dubbed the “latte levy,” the fee would amount to around 10 percent on every cup of coffee sold, presumably a painful enough charge to induce most people to carry around their own reusable cups.
Disposable cups are often laminated with plastic or polyethylene to make them waterproof. But traditional paper mills and recycling facilities are not equipped for the complex process of stripping the plastic away. Instead, the containers end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators, a concern for environmentalists who say that toxins can seep into the ground or escape into the air.
In Britain alone, 2.5 billion cups are discarded each year, enough to circle the planet five and a half times, according to the parliamentary report. That number could expand to five billion cups a year in seven years’ time as the explosive growth of cafe culture in the country shows few signs of abating.
The proposal for a coffee tax follows a 5-pence charge for plastic bags at stores, introduced in Britain in 2015, which has led to a plunge in usage of more than 80 percent. Some consumers complained that the latest levy should be imposed on coffee retailers, rather than coffee drinkers. But supporters of the campaign say that a tax may well force a shift in consumer behavior, as it did with plastic bags.
“The polluter should pay for it,” Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said in an interview. “It shouldn’t be the public that should pay for it, but we’d still be in favor because it will change behavior.”
But Ian Fisher, 49, who was taking his breakfast at Costa, a major coffee chain, found the tax proposal “unacceptable,” adding, “Coffee is expensive enough, and it’s not going to cure the problem of people littering.”
Most coffee chains currently offer small discounts when drinks are served in reusable cups.
Starbucks on Friday said it was looking to test a 5-pence paper cup charge in 25 stores across London starting in February. “We will investigate the impact of a 5 pence charge on a paper cup, coupled with prominent marketing of reusable cups,” the coffee giant said.
Caffe Nero, another prominent coffee retailer, said it was committed to increasing “the sustainable recovery and recycling of paper cups.” Costa, the biggest coffee chain in Britain, said it had collected more than 12 million cups for recycling over the past year, though it was not clear how many of those were recycled.
Members of Parliament behind the report dismissed the efforts made by coffee shops and cup manufacturers. They have “recently made voluntary commitments or provide in-store recycling, some of which were introduced during the course of the inquiry,” the report said.
“However, despite having spent years talking about the problem, industry’s voluntary commitments have been inconsistent and ineffective.”
A 2011 consumer survey cited by the lawmakers found that eight in 10 consumers were laboring under the misconception that disposable cups were being recycled, and that most consumers tried to discard their cups in recycling bins. The report found that fewer than one cup in 400, or 0.25 percent, gets recycled.
There are alternatives to the latte levy. Two facilities in Britain have the capacity to recycle disposable cups, having invested in the multimillion-dollar machinery needed to strip the plastic away from the paper.
“The tricky part is taking the plastic from the fiber,” said Richard Burnett, market development manager at James Cropper, a fine-paper manufacturer that recycles the paper into upscale shopping bags for department stores like Selfridges.
The operation has the capability to recycle half a billion paper cups a year, he said by telephone, but they were not being collected properly and sent to the manufacturer, based some 260 miles north of London, to be recycled. “That’s the missing part of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said.
Since paper cups only make up less than 1 percent of total packaging waste in Britain, most paper mills have not invested in specialized machinery, Mr. Burnett said. Paper recyclers also generally reject packaging that has been “contaminated,” or come into contact with food or drink.
On the other end of the spectrum, some companies are starting to develop cups that can be recycled more easily. Frugalpac’s “Frugal Cup” contains a plastic liner that is glued only lightly so that it separates quickly and easily when the cup is re-pulped, lawmakers said.
Hannah Baines, 16, who was studying one morning at a Costa shop and drinking coffee out of a cup, welcomed the bid for a latte tax. But in the long run, she said, “it’s probably just better to make the cups recyclable.”