Plastic bag bans and fees have been popping up across the U.S. for years now. Could single-use coffee cup fees be next? A new study out of the U.K. suggests it’s possible.
The U.K. discards an estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups per year, according to Phys.org. But researchers at Cardiff University in Wales found that a combination of measures could reduce that number by up to 300 million, mostly by encouraging reusable cup usage.
In the study, conducted in several cafes and coffee shops over a four-month span in 2016, enacting a single-use cup fee increased reusable cup use by 3.4 percent. Making reusable cups more readily available to patrons increased use by 2.5 percent, while providing free reusable cups led to a 4.3 percent increase in use. And posting environmental messaging in the shops increased use by an additional 2.3 percent.
All told, the study found that the combination could increase reusable cup usage by as much as 17.4 percent, and 12.5 percent on average.
While the U.K. has yet to do anything with the findings—BBC News reported that researchers will submit the study results to a government inquiry on waste—they certainly make a compelling case for single-use cup fees. And there are a few reasons to believe such fees could make their way across the pond sooner rather than later.
Estimates vary, but according to Carry Your Cup, Americans use 48 billion disposable cups per year—25 billion styrofoam and 23 billion paper. Most of those are coated in polyethylene, making them non-recyclable. Assuming Cardiff University’s findings held true, a single-use cup fee alone would save roughly 1.6 billion cups a year (3.4 percent). The combination of fees, environmental messaging and free or more accessible reusable cups would save 6 billion single-use cups per year (12.5 percent).
Those are gaudy numbers, the kind that could easily grab the attention of U.S. cities, states and companies pushing sustainability initiatives. And there’s plenty of precedent. Chicago, Dallas and other major cities have imposed plastic bag fees, and California has banned plastic bags altogether. (New York passed a bag fee, but its status is now up in the air.) Montreal has banned single-use plastic bottles, and some U.S. cities are considering similar bans.
In that context, coffee cup fees feel like a matter of when, not if. And depending on the scale, they’d have a major impact on the promo industry. A single-use cup fee might hurt reorders of branded paper cups and sleeves, but that would likely be offset by increased sales of reusable tumblers, mugs and other drinkware to those same businesses. And it may open up avenues for additional sales. In the study, providing free reusable cups yielded a 4.3 percent increase in their use—in the U.S., that would replace roughly 2.1 billion single-use cups. That’s a convincing argument for more giveaways of branded replacement drinkware.
There’s no immediate change on the way for the U.S., but it’s worth watching what the U.K. does with the findings. France already banned single-use coffee cups last year—if the U.K. follows, the U.S. could be next in line.