In London, you'll have to tack on 5p to any takeout drink

By Tim Nelson
February 26, 2018
Zhang Peng/Getty Images

An estimated 2.5 billion cups are thrown away in the UK every year. In the context of a world increasingly worried about climate change, that was enough to get Parliament to suggest a 25 pence surcharge on disposable cups.

While initial public reaction was lukewarm, Starbucks has decided to at least do something to stem the tide of hot cups headed for British landfills. This week, 35 London locations of the global coffee chain will institute their watered-down version of the proposed “latte levy”, charging an extra 5p (about $0.07) on every hot to-go drink purchased.

Set to be instituted for a three-month study period, Starbucks’ announcement says they’ll then “share our findings with any interested parties before taking a view on next steps.” In the meantimes, the 5p proceeds will be donated to an environmental charity and “behavior change experts.”

For Starbucks UK, this is the first institution of an upcharge on wasteful habits after years of incentivizing its customers to sip their Sumatra blend sustainably. They first introduced a 10p discount for reusable cups in 1998, which was then upped to 20p in 2008 and 50p for a brief time in 2016. Even after selling a reusable cup for £1 starting in 2014, Starbucks estimated only 1.8% of its customers adopted the practice.

Now, they hope that more punitive measures will do the trick. According to The Guardian, Starbucks’ own market research estimated that about 48% of customers would switch to a reusable cup in order to avoid paying the extra 5p.

As it is, recycling plants can’t handle Starbucks cups and only one out of every 400 cups. That leaves banning hot coffee, inventing a cardboard cup that doesn’t require polyethylene, or simply using less of the current cups as the only real options. Hopefully measures like this can start to lessen our collective environmental impact without forcing us to switch to cold brew forever.