UK Proposes Latte Levy

Updated January 10, 2018

The specialty coffee industry has been wringing its collective hands the last day or two over a proposed tax on coffee cups.

On Friday, a parliamentary committee in Britain issued a report recommending 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.

The problem with disposable cups is that the plastic lining can’t be separated in order to recycle the materials, therefore the cups go directly to the landfill. According to the report recommending the tax, the UK alone produces 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups each year. That’s a lot of plastic waste!

The common thread through many of the counter-arguments I’ve seen made by specialty coffee people is that the tax is an unfair burden on cafe owners and also that it might change the habits of coffee-drinkers, to the detriment of cafe profits, i.e. some drinkers might start making coffee at home instead of stopping by the cafe on the way to work.

I should state that I no longer sell coffee, so I understand it’s easy for me to say this; but I think this levy is a good thing. It’s already getting a lot of people (the right people) thinking and talking about the problem of plastic-content in disposable cups. They are already thinking about how to avoid the tax and how to change customers’ behavior, which is the intent of the tax.

I think too many people have focused solely on the sins of k-cups and missed the forest for the trees. The industry has a lot of wasteful plastic that can be reduced and disposable cups and k-cups are just two examples. All the time and energy people spent railing against k-cups could have been better spent railing against many forms of plastics in the coffee industry. I know it isn’t easy to change customers’ habits. When we sold coffee at the farmer’s market, we offered cheaper prices to people who brought their own mug/cup (I don’t think anyone eever did) and also we sold valved coffee tins, hoping people would bring them back to be refilled when they bought more whole-bean coffee and again; no one ever brought one back to be refilled. But it takes time. Just like establishing a brand, I think customers have to see it over and over again before it really registers in their head.

Had the industry spent our time better-training customers and really pushing greener choices, maybe the government wouldn’t be looking to take action. But now that it has, I think we should take advantage of the situation and really crank up the heat on alternatives to plastic.

I’ve developed a greater appreciation for a conscious reduction in plastic usage after visiting certain countries in SE Asia, where taking care of the environment may be less important to people. Late last year my wife and I were visiting Bandung, Indonesia and took a hike to see a big waterfall. After hiking 5k up the side of a mountain, we found the waterfall—full of trash. Images like these make it far easier for me to stomach heavy-handed approaches to reducing the amount of plastic in the world:

trashed waterfall trashed waterfall trashed waterfall

Updated January 10, 2018: Expanded bit about taking time to change customers’ habits.


Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader and an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST).

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