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26 May 2017

With the general election campaign in full swing and political parties putting forward their plans for the future of the country, one of the policies to garner widespread attention has been the Liberal Democrats’ idea of introducing a 5p levyon disposable coffee cups.

This, the Lib Dem manifesto argues, would build upon the plastic bag levy that the party helped introduce when in government, and at the same time cut waste. Each year, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, people in the UK throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups; just 1% are recycled.

There is growing awareness of this problem, and earlier in the year retailers, charities and other organisations came together in the City of London to offer recycling facilities, which they hope will lead to five million coffee cups being recycled each year.

One of the reasons that this policy has been put on the table is because of the success of the plastic bag levy. Introduced across the UK (England was the last country in the UK to do so, in October 2015), the plastic bag levy sees customers at large stores charged 5p for each plastic bag that they use. The impact? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), found that plastic bag usage fell by six billion in the first year.

The plastic bag levy has been successful for two reasons. Firstly, it has led to positive behaviour change, which sees people using their own reusable bags instead. Secondly, consumers know that in instances where they do end up buying a plastic bag, most of their 5p cost is passed onto a good cause. Almost £30 million was raised for charities in its first six months alone.

We've been working directly with some of Britain’s best-loved retailers to help direct funds raised by plastic bags to causes that will resonate with their customers. We’ve helped Aldi to fund the RSPB, Marks and Spencer to support both national and local charities, and we’ve also partnered with Sainsbury’s to help deliver their community programmes.

It’s worth noting that Sainsbury’s actually produce plastic bags that are sufficiently sourced to avoid the levy, but Sainsbury’s have decided to donate the profits from sales of these plastic bags to local charities regardless. In that sense, the plastic bag levy has had a positive impact on retailer behaviour as well as consumers.

Of course in the long-term, the behavioural change that the plastic bag levy generates will mean that less money goes to charities in this way, as people’s usage of plastic bags will continue to fall. However, it is the linking of the levy to charitable causes that has meant it has been warmly embraced by consumers.

It’s always a good barometer off the success of a policy to see whether it remains politically contentious. That the plastic bag levy is no longer seen as an issue, and is just part of daily life, shows how this cross-party policy has been embraced.

Whilst not explicitly confirmed in their manifesto, the Lib Dems have suggested that the proceeds from a coffee cup levy would also go to charity. If enacted, that would be a welcome commitment that would ensure it builds upon the success of a plastic bag levy and provides much-needed funds to charities.

People are keen to support businesses that meet their social obligations, something that is particularly true amongst younger audiences. A new coffee cup levy could help positively alter consumer behaviour, whilst also generating millions that could be spent on good causes. We hope that all political parties will consider the merits of this proposal, and that we can help to provide the caffeinating kick to make it work.

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