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Will Boston Tea Party kick off a coffee revolution?

The café chain’s total ban on single-use cups is a bold move that its customers may not be ready for. By David Burrows.

From today (June 1st) single-use coffee cups will be banned at Boston Tea Party’s (BTP) 21 stores. It’s a bold move, not least because takeaway hot drinks are responsible for 5.2% of the chain’s £19.8m turnover. That’s about a million quid at risk. “We want to demonstrate to other operators that to make a difference, big change is needed,” said the café chain’s managing director, Sam Roberts. “Lots of coffee chains are making pledges about how they plan to tackle cup waste in the future. But theirs is a future which is too far away.”

Coffee cup commitments have certainly come thick and fast. Starbucks has a 25p discount if you bring your own cup; a 5p levy on disposable ones is also being trialled at 35 London stores (about 4% of its outlets). Caffè Nero gives customers a double stamp (the same as 25p off). Costa also offers 25p off and has promised to recycle as many cups as it puts into the market by 2020. Pret’s discount is 50p, though there isn’t an option to use china cups if you sit in.

However, BTP has stolen a march on them all with its ban. But is it too soon?

Look at the evidence and BTP’s accountant may start to sweat a little. The 21-strong chain has had a 25p discount in place since July 2016 but take-up has been just 2.8%. So if takeaway drink sales are £1m and each one costs an average of, say, £2.50, that’s 40,000 drinks, of which just 1,120 (2.8%) are in reusable cups.

Consider also Starbucks’ struggle on this front: it set a target in 2008 to sell 25% of its coffee in reusable cups by 2015. Ten years on, it has got no further than 1.5%. The target has been reset to 5%, but news that it’s ploughing £7m into developing a fully recyclable and compostable cup suggests it’s sticking with single-use cups for now. “No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date. It’s just not moving fast enough,” said Colleen Chapman, the Starbucks vice-president of global social impact. The deadline for a solution is three years from now.

Starbucks will no doubt be taking a keen interest in the results of BTP’s  ban. From today, the single-use cups will disappear, leaving customers with two options: buy a reusable cup at cost, or borrow one and get a refund when they return it. Let’s not forget that bans on single-use plastics and packaging aren’t unheard of. Tesco got rid of 5p bags in August 2017, but that was almost two years after the levy was introduced; its shoppers have had ample time to adapt.

BTP’s announcement was made on April 23rd, giving customers just five weeks to get used to bringing their own cups. Five weeks. Even the notoriously boundary-pushing MPs on the environmental audit committee proposed a period of five years – the introduction of a 25p latte levy should come first, it said, followed by a ban on single-use cups if a target to recycle 100% of them has not been met come 2023.

There is evidence to suggest that a tax rather than a discount – a stick as opposed to a carrot – would have yielded far better results for BTP in its efforts to wean its customers off disposables. Leaning on research conducted by Cardiff University, the environmental audit committee noted: “A charge creates an incentive for consumers to find a more financially sustainable alternative, reducing the amount of disposable packaging used.” The plastic bag tax is a case in point – consumption has fallen by 83% as people bring bags for life to the shops.

A 5p charge on cups won’t cut it, though. Starbucks’ London trial is close to pointless because carting a cup around remains an inconvenience for most. Charge 25p and it makes people think twice. Head towards 50p and “very, very few people” will pay up for the convenience of a disposable cup, according to Keep Britain Tidy.

BTP has ignored all that and gone straight for a ban. It feels rushed. Or is just that everyone else is putting off the inevitable?