Everyone’s cup of tea

Confusion over carrier bags shows that a universal charge on paper cups is the best way to cut waste.

One of the most remarkable features of the way in which the carrier bag charge was introduced in England was the government’s insistence that small retailers be exempt. This was despite repeated requests from the Association of Convenience Stores, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN) and the British Retail Consortium that all retailers be included.

On the very day that large stores in England began charging for bags, representatives of the NFRN met the resources minister, Rory Stewart, to again appeal for the decision to be reconsidered. The NFRN warned that excluding small shops would harm small businesses and the environment, and that while small shops could voluntarily charge for plastic bags, many would be reluctant to do so for fear of losing out to local competitors.

According to the NFRN, the exemption means that small business will be burdened by providing more carrier bags, free of charge, for fewer items. This will increase retailers’ costs. The federation instead advocates a “universal rule” to remove any uncertainty and maximise the benefits.

To me, this is a clear example of where well-thought-through legislation – as seen in the charging schemes introduced in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – can be of clear benefit to those to whom it is applied, as well as wider society. This is important given the common knee-jerk reaction from some quarters against proposed increases in red tape.

Wake up and smell the coffee.

I was discussing this recently with a friend who runs a small independent coffee shop. He pointed out the parallels between carrier bags and single- use takeaway cups, and the potential for a universally applied charge to be financially appealing, particularly for smaller retailers.

While I have long advocated applying a charge to single-use takeaway cups (more information is available in our “A Clean Sweep” report, March 2015), this view has been largely formed from the perspective of seeking to prevent waste and reduce the wider negative impacts of litter. Similar in concept to carrier bag charges, money raised through such a charge would be directed to charitable causes. I must admit that I hadn’t given much thought to the potential benefits to retailers, coffee shops and other foodservice outlets.

However, single-use takeaway cups are (to me at least) surprisingly expensive. My friend pays about 10p per cup and lid. Then he has to store them all inside the relatively cramped café, which makes life that bit more difficult for him and his colleagues. Finally he is more than a little concerned about the reputational issue of cups that have clearly come from his coffee shop (there aren’t any others nearby) that end up being littered. Being a good neighbour he feels compelled to send his employees outside to pick up those that he can see.

He has thought about offering a discount for people, like me, who bring their own reusable cups. However, he feels the effect would be very limited because it’s not something that customers – many of whom are just passing through – would necessarily expect to be on offer.

In short, he would strongly welcome a universally applied charge on single- use takeaway cups. It would save him money, prevent waste, reduce the amount of litter in the neighbourhood and raise funds for good causes. What’s more, the benefits to small retailers of a universally applied charge would seem to be far greater than those of a voluntary approach under which some might choose not to charge for fear of losing custom.

I’m not sure how much it costs large retailers to buy cups and lids, but I would imagine they might be able to negotiate a much better deal than that available

to my friend. If so, the savings to larger players per takeaway cup avoided would be smaller, so there might be less enthusiasm for such a charge. For smaller businesses, however, this would seem to be a particularly appealing prospect – something the government should consider as it sets about planning its new national litter strategy for England.

Chris Sherrington is principal consultant (environmental economics & ecosystem services) at Eunomia Research & Consulting.

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