Starbucks recycling bins

The large coffee cup chains have introduced recycling bins to combat waste

Charging for disposable coffee cups could help prevent 300 million from going to landfill every year, researchers at Cardiff University have found.

The study found a combination of charges, providing reusable alternatives and environmental messaging in cafés could lead to a 12.5% cut in the 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups used every year.

“While the increases for individual measures were modest, the greatest behavioural change was when the measures were combined,” said report author Professor Wouter Poortinga of Cardiff University.

The research, which tested a number of different methods to reduce waste between September and December, found a charge on disposable cups increased the use of reusable coffee cups by 3.4%. Environmental messaging in cafés increased their use by 2.3%, while the distribution of free reusable cups yielded the highest increase of 4.3%.

Existing initiatives such as a discount for customers with reusable coffee cups had no impact on their usage, found the study, conducted on behalf of foodservice coffee business Bewley’s. Several coffee chains have introduced similar incentives including Costa and Starbucks, which offer customers a 25p discount each time they buy a drink with a reusable cup.

“There is an important nuance when it comes to financial incentives,” said Professor Poortinga. “People are far more sensitive to losses than to gains when making decisions - so if we really want to change a customer’s behaviour then a charge on a disposable cup is more likely to be effective.”

The research findings will be submitted to the government’s inquiry into coffee cup waste.

Chris Stemman, executive director of the British Coffee Association, said the research was vital to the industry. But he stressed the association’s focus was to create “long-term sustainability”. “We believe that developing new packaging materials and enhancing recycling processes and infrastructures will have a significantly greater and longer-term impact compared with other proposed measures such as charging or taxing disposable cups,” he said.

Last year, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall shone a spotlight on coffee cup waste by revealing Brits go through 5,000 disposable coffee cups a minute in his War on Waste programme. It is thought to take more than 20 years for a disposable coffee cup to decompose.