The UK government’s proposal to introduce a 25p levy on takeaway coffee cups has certainly got everyone talking. That in itself is a good thing and also an interesting observation on our behaviour and attitudes. I've already read outraged responses from coffee shop owners calling it a cappuccino con, but take a step back and ask if you saw the same reaction to coffee shops offer discount for using your own cup? No is the answer.

Coffee giants have in fact offered discounts for years to consumers who bring in a reusable cup, but despite this the uptake is poor. Starbucks report that only 1.36% of beverages were served in reusable cups globally in 2015(1).

Consumers just aren’t willing to sacrifice convenience for a small discount.


The application of incentives (discounts, rewards etc.) and their effectiveness have been hotly debated, and is an active area of research with behavioural science (incentive theory). Proponents of using incentives in behavioural change argue that incentives aid in getting people to do the desired action for example exercise more or save money.

However, opponents have noted how the use of incentives can backfire by crowding out the intrinsic motivations people have which are important in producing the desired behaviour. Hence often an incentive will work in the short term but not over longer periods of time.

In contrast, by introducing even a small penalty, people are often more likely to take action to avoid paying more – and are more likely to continue the behaviour for longer, forming a habit.

Coffee cups have become a symbol of waste and recycling challenges because of their very low recycling rates.


Coffee cups have become a symbol of waste and recycling challenges, even though they actually represent a tiny fraction of takeaway beverage containers put on the market.

There are three general approaches to address the coffee cup conundrum:

  1. Reduce their use by encouraging use of reusable cups
  2. Improve recycling rates
  3. Switch to compostable cups

The so-called “latte levy” could be the key to finally changing consumer behaviour. But the disposable coffee cup is not going away any time soon. So how do we address points two and three?

Improving recycling relies on a complex mix of improving collection schemes, increasing the purity of recyclate streams and investing in specialised recycling infrastructure which can deal with the specific materials challenged posed by the disposable cup.

Switching to compostable cups may sound like a good idea but for the environmental benefits to be realised it would rely also on good segregation into composting waste streams and investment in those facilities.

Technology will play a vital role in the collection and separation of waste. A coffee cup is a classic example where consumers struggle to decide if it should go in the general waste, recycling or composting waste stream. Even if it is clear which type of coffee cup they have in their hand, they are unlikely to know whether the infrastructure is in place to process it properly. Using technology to take these decisions out of the hands of the consumer could lead to significant improvements in recyclate quality.

A smarter way to recycle

Our 'smarter recycling' system uses machine vision and machine learning to support consumers to dispose correctly. Consumers using the smarter recycling point were 35% more likely to dispose of waste items correctly than those using a traditional bin.


Catherine Joce

Catherine is a Consultant in the Strategy, Innovation and Process group, focussed identification and implementation of strategic opportunities for sustainable innovation.