This week I learned that Starbucks was going to start a disposable coffee cup charge in a sample of its stores in the United Kingdom (see here, BusinessGreen). And from the same source I also read that UK MPs have proposed a levy on disposable coffee cups and an improvement to the infrastructure for their recycling.

The disposable coffee cup is a big issue. The numbers are gigantic: 1 billion cups per year in Australia, 2.5 billion in the UK. One of the projects that had caught my eye in my final months in my role at Sustainability Advantage was on this very topic. Learning from the gurus in this space, one of my key take-aways was that they are not easy to recycle. While coffee cups look like they are all paper, there is actually a thin plastic film inside. Putting a coffee cup into a paper recycling bin, which I reasonably assume a layperson would believe to be the best place to dispose it, can actually be considered contamination of the whole collection. And then there is the lid, which is all plastic. This means that one waste item requires two bins, a massive behavioural problem.

But this broader concept, disposing of the disposables, is not new. It is a crusade being led by the supermarket plastic bag, which is already charged for everywhere in my home city of Bucharest, and will soon happen in my homeland of Australia. In fact, charging extra for plastic bags is already out of fashion. Tesco, in August last year, stopped offering single-use plastic bags altogether (see here, BusinessGreen). Its recycled plastic option remains, with an added product stewardship element; it is replaceable for free if it breaks.

The plastic straw has also started attracting attention. Just after Christmas, I read a fantastic story about Dignity Health, a US health provider, and its elimination of plastic straws from the cafes of its 39 hospitals (see here, GreenBiz). A total of two million plastic straws per year.

So, the scale of the environmental problem is quite clear. There is a lot of waste, and in turn a big risk of pollution in streets, parks, waterways, and even oceans. But what is the business driver?

The one that I always come back to is goodwill, reputation and brand. Retailers put their logos on their plastic bags; cafes brand their coffee cups. These items become a part of an organisation’s brand identity. Marketing and communications people love to enforce things like logo spacing on colleagues’ PowerPoint presentations, but have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to how their logo is being treated by its customers.

It is an awful, embarrassing look to see your logo as garbage. The look is even worse when it is the one thing in the way of a gorgeous clean park, or an item in one of those awful images showing what was found in a dead fish’s stomach. See a few examples here, here, and here.

One might imagine that taking the branding off these disposables might be a solution. I am not convinced. In Australia for example, supermarket companies are directly and inextricably linked to the disposable plastic bags problem. A person that sees one in the street, associates immediately with the retailers. The association goes to the entire industry. The same goes for coffee cups.

The longer a company or an industry is associated with local scale concerns like neighbourhood pollution, to global scale crises like ocean plastic, the faster the erosion of goodwill, reputation, and brand value. By contrast, imagine the company or industry with the durable, long-lasting, useful and multi-purpose cup/bag, and how much better that is.

Starting to resonate with the drivers here? Here are some things you can do:

  • Compile a list of all the single-use, disposable items that you procure. Pinpoint a few potential “quick wins”.
  • Use Dignity Health as inspiration for the perfect first project. People do not think about plastic straws, they just take them and use them. The product that the customer really cares about is the drink they are sipping into the straw. Few will notice the change, and even fewer will be unsettled by it.
  • Invite your key suppliers to come and present to you different options that are reusable and more environmentally friendly. This way, others are doing the work for you.

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