Should stores charge customers extra to use disposable cups?

Discussion
Photo: Starbucks
Apr 07, 2017

With many municipalities now charging a small fee for plastic bags at stores to reduce their environmental damage, a study finds charging for disposable cups could work the same way.

Research from Cardiff University in the U.K. estimated that the combination of charging for disposable cups, in-store messaging about cup waste and providing reusable cups could reduce up to 300 million disposable cups per year in the U.K. An estimated 2.5 billion cups are used in the U.K. each year, contributing 25,000 tons of waste, the study found.

The study, conducted between September to December 2016, was funded by Dublin-based coffee and tea company Bewley’s.

The distribution of free reusable cups was found as the best way to encourage use of reusable cups, followed by charging for disposable cups, availability of reusable cups and in-store messaging. Using all four tactics, on average, was found to increase reusable-cup use by up to 12.5 percent.

Most paper cups present an eco-challenge in that their plastic film lining makes them hard to recycle. Further, the use of recycled paper in cups is limited due to their inability to support hot contents.

The study comes as Starbucks has fallen well short of a goal set in 2008 to serve 25 percent of all beverages in reusable cups by 2015. By 2013, reusable cup use reached only 1.8 percent despite efforts that included offering a 10 cents-per-cup discount and keeping the price for the cups low ($1).

In its most recent environment report, Starbucks wrote that it planned to further collaborate with other companies on the challenge while noting that “ultimately it will be our customers who control whether or not we achieve continued growth in the number of beverages served in reusable cups.”

Any program to reduce disposable cup use will face similar hurdles as those facing plastic bags. Legislators have seen bans on, or fees for, plastic bags as an unfair burden to lower-income consumers and on merchants.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the clamor to reduce the use of disposable cups reaching the same level as plastic bags? What parallels do you see between the two efforts? How should retailers respond?

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19 Comments on "Should stores charge customers extra to use disposable cups?"


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Tony Orlando
Guest

Really! This is beyond stupid, as most of the disposable coffee cups being sold are already biodegradable. The liberal cities will use this as an excuse to put a tax on us evil folks who want disposable cups, and that is another way to prop up the city coffers with money.

Al McClain
Staff
Personally, I’d love to see this sort of thing happen, but we are such a disposable society that I think it will be a slow slog. There’s this mentality out there (at least in the U.S.) that “no one tells me what to do”. I’m constantly amazed at the lack of recycling by many consumers even when it is made easy. For example, in airports with recycling bins clearly labeled as to what goes in them, right next to trash bins – there is always a mix of trash and recyclables in each. A program like this might work for retailers like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks (although maybe not) and the like, but it definitely won’t work for Walmart or Target. The few states that have put refundable fees on cans and bottles have seen reductions in roadside litter, but it still hasn’t motivated the 40 or so states who don’t do that to do it. It’s all about “don’t tell us what to do” until we reach a real crisis point in landfills… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest

The discussion on disposable cups is just beginning. Look for it to gain interest as time progresses. Starbucks and other chains should get in front of the issue, but I expect it will take legislation, or the threat of legislation, to make action happen. Ultimately consumers will make the decision through their actions and ballots. In California, which enacted a ban on plastic bags, consumers have grumbled, then adapted. I expect them to do the same if disposable cups are banned or taxed.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust
The apprehension over the use of plastic bags came after years of negative publicity regarding their impact on the environment. Once public awareness was raised above a certain threshold we saw the early bans on single-use plastic bags. The good news is that there were readily apparent alternatives that did not require extra effort on the part off the consumer. The retailer could give them a reusable bag or sell it to them. The concern over disposable cups has not yet reached anywhere near that same level. One of the significant differences is that moving to reusable cups will require effort on the part of both the consumer and the retailer. Small example: Consumers will have to be willing to have that recyclable cup (empty or not) in their car where before they simply found a trash can (hopefully) and got rid of it. Retailers will have to consider providing a place for customers to wash out their cups (something we did in the early 1990s for reusable coffee cups). The only market where I… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

In our community the cost of a plastic bag is $.05 at check out, so many bring their own carry sacks for grocery in particular. It is a pain. Packaging is the cost of consumption and supply. Styrofoam is the optimal hot/cold take out beverage vessel, but neither it nor wax-covered cardboard are recyclable, so action is needed at the design/manufacturing processes. Bringing your own mug slows counter and drive-thru processes, and so is a “tax” on dispensing. The science of food container and package composting is truly the key to change.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

I’m not sure charging consumers for the cups will do anything but tick them off. I think it is probably more effective to create cups that fit within our current behaviors (throwing into a recycle bin or regular trash can), and make them perform better after disposal.

Larry Negrich
Guest

We discuss experience a great deal as a reason for a consumer to visit a retailer. Part of this experience in a coffee shop, and specifically Starbucks, is the feel of the warm coffee in the rigid paper cup. I understand if a cost of something, such as biodegradable cups, is built into a product’s cost. But penalizing a consumer for the choice of a cup may leave the consumer with a negative experience.

Another consideration of user-supplied reusable cups is hygiene. While I know the process of bringing in a reusable mug to be filled is common, it does create some food safety issues. Servers are exposed to a cup that is cleaned, or not, and then handle other cups and food products. If it comes to it, I’ll pay the extra penny for a clean, disposable cup or I’ll just buy a good coffee machine and make my own coffee.

Scott Norris
Guest

It is easy enough to measure cups disposed of, but the alternative isn’t without energy cost and waste either. Did Bewley’s attempt to calculate the added labor, water usage, energy cost, and related CO2 emissions of washing and sterilizing reusable cups?

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Tough one. From a customer experience perspective, disposable cups provide the best speed of delivery and consistency at fast-service coffee places like Starbucks. I don’t think charging more for disposable cups would work. Rather, a discount for bringing your own cup would work better initially until customer behavior changes. Also if someone is drinking their espresso on-site like I do most of the time, they might prefer real cups — I prefer real cups, anyway.

Sean Wargo
Guest

Ultimately, I’m not sure this solves the problem. In an affluent society consumers may not like the extra fee, but they will often pay it, thereby perpetuating the use of disposable cups and the waste they entail. As pointed out by Lyle Bunn, a better answer would seem to be materials science. Why couldn’t the premium price for your favorite hot beverage cover the R&D needed to develop ultra-degradable cups? Or perhaps go towards community composting options? There are many up- or down-stream possibilities with potentially unforeseen benefits. All of that seems more likely than getting consumers to shift habits, particularly when a reusable mug is more challenging (and potentially less sanitary) for the in-store process.

Dan Raftery
Guest

With the Dublin study showing only 12.5% increase in reusable cups, I’d say the way to change behavior is still unknown. We are a disposable society. The solution will need to fit that mold, not try to change it.

Cate Trotter
Guest

I don’t think the debate around disposable cups is at the same level yet as plastic bags. It’s also hard to compare the alternatives — bringing your own bag to the supermarket is a far simpler task than a reusable cup which comes with a host of challenges, from hygiene to increasing wait times. I think there’s certainly room for improvement as far as disposable cups go, but some of that should be focused on the materials used and recycling options available.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

There is an airline that charges you if you use their restroom/lavatory. How do you think the passengers feel?

Charge me for the cup for my drink? Better idea … Give me a discount if I don’t use your disposable cup. Give me back a few pennies for being environmentally conscious.

There are grocery stores that charge for the plastic bags. I get it and accept it. However, I struggle to use that model with cups. Then, where does it stop? Why not charge for the plate and silverware. After all, there is a cost to washing it.

This is a model that could have consequences if not well thought out.

gordon arnold
Guest

The present day ecological genocide resulting from highly toxic packaging and transportation fuels is not, never has been, nor will it ever be due to the financial needs of lower income people. The ownership of the technologies in place spend billions of dollars collectively to keep this in place with the full support of the financial institutions that they are indebted to. There are materials and technologies that can provide better results for less money. This would render many a multi-millionaire not only without a job but without any income as well.

So who in power really cares about the economy, the environment, or the consumer? The irony is that the consumer is ultimately forced to pay for these problems and the laws that keep them in place. The bad news is, there is little light coming from this seemingly endless tunnel in what we call the age of free information.

Al McClain
Staff

I agree with you, to a degree, Gordon. It’s not that all large corporations are “bad,” but some have great incentives to do environmentally damaging things, turning a blind eye. It will take strong corporate leadership, which we see from some, to really improve the environment. Currently, the federal government has no interest in subjects like these, so private enterprise needs to step up to the plate and leaders of important corporations need to lead the way, along with innovative start ups. Sidenote: I agree that a discount for bringing your own cup is better than a charge for not. 7-Eleven currently does this on soda, and I see a little traction there.

gordon arnold
Guest

Much of your response provided value to the discussion in topic Al, but I am compelled disagree with your consideration for the people in place that could make a difference if they so desired. We could go back and forth forever about our experiences and opinions about corporate executives that could, if they would, make positive adjustments to the discussion in topic.

Your example of how 7–Eleven has escaped the ramifications of bipolar opinion is well positioned and a very positive statement for the company, thank you 7–Eleven. Is this truly in the best interest of their customers, the ecology and life as we know it? I, for one, think not. While many of us think that ink and paper, good intent and promises as in a sworn oath have insured a right to live leave us with much to resolve. I have always been a strong supporter of business and a free economy. The improvements I look for are found in the difference of freedom from and freedom to.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
5 years 2 months ago

No easy answers on this one. Take one example — the traveler who visits a Starbucks while arriving at the airport. Is this person going to carry around a reusable cup through the airport and onto the airplane? Today, reusable cups make sense to me for the person who is regularly visiting their local coffee shop. For everyone else, it can be more complicated. Consumers are ultimately creatures of convenience and a reusable cup isn’t going to address convenience 100% of the time.

At the same time, I’m sure if you polled most people if they would consider using a reusable cup vs a paper one given all the data about waste you would very likely see a large percentage of support for using them. However, that doesn’t solve any issues with execution. The potential cost penalty of paper cups is something that would just irritate consumers, but isn’t going to stop anyone from buying their favorite cup of coffee.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

One might of course ask if there was ever really a “clamor” about plastic bags, or if it wasn’t more the concern of a vocal, but small group of people.

That having been said, there are significant differences between the two issues. For a start, there is the issue of sanitation and liability (that inevitably attaches itself to reusing implements in food service).

How should retailers respond? With all kinds of surveys and heartfelt letters … that’s what social media is for, isn’t it?

Ralph Jacobson
Guest

I actually don’t see the issue at the same level as plastic bags. What I have always thought about, though, is the fact that not only the cups, but also the water costs the operators money. I never understood why patrons expect a cup of water for free. In this case, just let the politicians screw it up, as usual. I’m certain they will solve all the world’s pressing problems. (Am I sounding cynical, yet?)

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Braintrust
"The science of food container and package composting is truly the key to change."
"Charge me for the cup for my drink? Better idea … Give me a discount if I don’t use your disposable cup."
"We are a disposable society. The solution will need to fit that mold, not try to change it."

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