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Why charges are not enough to bin throwaway culture

By Hollie Ryan

Friday 2 February 2018 Student Journalists

Student journalist Hollie Ryan considers the potential and problems of charging people for using disposible products, like coffee cups - and argues we need a multipronged approach to achieve true change.


When the 5p charge on plastic bags was first introduced, I worked in a department store and experienced the change from a customer-service perspective. Alongside government policy, the social interaction between those selling products and the consumer is a key factor in changing unsustainable behaviour habits, but often goes unacknowledged and undervalued. Therefore, when future charges are introduced to prevent consumers using disposable products, it’s important to focus on what comes alongside these economic changes to the market.

According to the Environmental Audit Committee, just 0.25% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups, used in the UK each year, are recycled. With the amount of coffee shops quadrupling since 2000, along with the fact that one in five of us now visit them each day, this means the problem of throwaway consumer culture is only getting worse. Mainstream coffee cups are made from a combination of paper and plastic, which means they cannot be recycled easily. As they are hard to separate, they have to be taken to special facilities, of which there are only 3 in the UK at present. Therefore there is a pressing need to prevent the use of these cups, which are so normalized in British culture. If we look at DEFRA's Waste Hierarchy, prevention is at the very top as the priority in waste management, however, for years, the focus has been on the recycling and disposing of the cups. This means the root cause of the problem is not being addressed, and that is the very use of disposable cups in the first place.

It's a little frustrating to see the government only really responding to the plastic problem at a major breaking point, with China recently banning the importation of foreign waste.

In order to try to prevent consumers using coffee cups, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has recommended either the Government setting a target for all single use coffee cups to be recycled by 2023, or the banning of disposable coffee cups altogether. I was very surprised to read from the Committee’s report Disposable Packaging: Coffee Cups, that consumers are more responsive to price increases rather than discounts, with a reduction of the use by 30%!

As a consumer myself, I don't believe the actual charge itself on its own is what causes consumers to stop using a product.If we take the example of the successful 5p charge on plastic bags in retailers across the country, it led to a 90% decline in use of plastic bags, which is equivalent to nine million fewer plastic bags being used. This has been a clear example of how a charge can make a huge difference, and I am a big advocate for the implementation of charges on disposable products. However what I believe was also key to the behaviour change in plastic bag use, which is often forgotten, is the way in which retailers actually offered bags.

Sales assistants are always trained in customer service, and when the charge was first introduced, we had to make sure we always asked the customer, "Do you need a bag?", or Would you like a 5p bag?". It is this interaction between the consumer and the sales assistant which I believe is one of the key driving forces behind behaviour change relating to reducing waste. Asking consumers if they need a bag every time they shop, instead of automatically giving them one, means it makes the consumer think about their decision. I'm sure a lot of consumers already were conscious of the amount of plastic bags they owned, and may have not wanted another, but because it was the norm to be given a bag in most retailers across the UK, people were unlikely to say "I don't need a bag", unless it was something that they really thought about. 

With the coffee cup crisis, I believe it is therefore really important to ensure that customer service changes, along with any future charges on coffee cup use. Of course there will be angry customers at first who seem to find the question "do you need a cup?" stupid and patronising, just like with plastic bags. I had countless scenarios where I politely asked the customer if they needed a bag with their shopping, and their reactions where along the lines of, "No, I'm just going to carry all these clothes under my arm and look like I'm stealing," or "Why should I pay you 5p for a bag which promotes your brand, especially when I am already paying a lot for your products?". However, pushback is an inevitable consequence of change, and I believe it's these interactions, small nudges each time a consumer buys something, which changes their perception. When I interacted with angry or upset customers, I would explain the reason for the charge, where the money from the 5p was actually going, and the idea of reusing bags they already have.

Therefore while I strongly advocate for the implementation of charges on coffee cups, I believe it is vital that we address the importance of the customer-facing environment, inside coffee stores, on a shop-floor level. I don't believe the 5p plastic bag charge would have made such a difference had not been for the way in which the interaction between the consumer and sales assistant changed. If a charge is just built into the price of a coffee, or a discount taken off, it's not likely to make a significant difference. This is because it is down to the rare consumer who actively would go against the social norm, by saying “please can you put this in my own reusable cup?”.

By just introducing a charge, it's making a difference economically to the individual and society, but alone it doesn't address the social side, that really makes a difference to changing the norm of this throwaway culture. In order for real change to take place, it is vital that, along with charges and discounts, that coffee shops normalise the idea of reusable cups.

The fact that awareness and uptake of discounts through not using a disposable cup is currently only at 1% of consumers, shows that businesses and government are not doing enough on the normalising side, but it also shows the huge opportunity and potential if businesses change the way sales assistants interact with customers.