Carrot or Stick?
A proposed 25p tax on coffee cups has been all over the news today, and in my inbox appeared an email from 38 Degrees asking me to share the petition supporting the tax. It stated that the levy could seriously tackle plastic pollution and save the environment.
Obviously, I agree with a tax on throwaway plastics; the fact that we manufacture single-use items from a material that, to all intents and purposes, lasts forever, is an irony not lost on me. It’s clear that the 5p charge on plastic bags has had a huge impact – an 80% decrease in their use according to studies (although just ditch them altogether, I say).
The thing is, I am not convinced that adding 25p to the price of my coffee will have the same effect. The ‘stick’ tactic works with plastic bags because, when it comes to the till, it’s easy for shoppers to a) carry their items b) squeeze more into each bag c) bring their own. Even though it’s only 5p, we would rather do one of the above three things than pay. The key word here is ‘easy’. The choice is made at the checkout. It doesn’t require much forethought (unless you choose option c).
With a levy on coffee cups, the ‘stick’ tactic might not work as well. Options a and b are impossible. The only viable option is to bring your own cup, and that’s actually a bit of a pain because it requires planning, and spending a fair amount upfront. Keep Cups do not fold neatly into a handbag. Let’s be honest, most people are not going to bother. It’s kind of easier to just pay the extra.
What could work better is the ‘carrot’ option. When I use my reusable cup in a coffee hut, I am often given money off my hot drink. This is brilliant – it makes me feel as if I’m being rewarded for doing something good, which is an excellent incentive to keep on doing it. And if I occasionally forget my cup, or I haven’t got around to washing it, I won’t be punished, I just won’t get my reward.
Lots of coffee houses already offer this incentive, and in combination with better publicity (a sign on the door saying ‘Have you remembered your cup?’, for example, in the same way supermarkets ask shoppers if they have remembered their own bags) it could have a great impact upon the number of cups that end up in landfill. That and better waste management – the percentage of single-use cups that are recycled is appallingly low.
Frustratingly, the coffee cup debate seems to have hijacked the general ‘tax on throwaway plastic’ that is the actual thrust of the original petition, by the excellent Natalie Fee and her City to Sea campaign. Definitely tax throwaway plastics (straws, water bottles etc). Coffee cups specifically, I’m not so sure.