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Furor brews in UK over paper coffee cups

An argument has broken out among top government ministers and environmentalists in the U.K. over whether paper coffee cups used in takeaway chains should be taxed.

A barista pours milk into a cup of coffee at a Starbucks store.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.K. Environment Minister Rory Stewart told fellow lawmakers in parliament this week that a tax could be added to every coffee sold in a non-recyclable cup, similar to the recently introduced 5p (7 cent) charge on plastic bags which has caused plastic bag take-up to fall dramatically.

Within hours of Stewart's comments in the House of Commons, however, he was contradicted by a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) who said no such tax was in the works.

The apparent government confusion over whether cups could be taxed or not comes as one British newspaper put major coffee chains in hot water with claims that they were not as green as they made out.

According to a report in The Times newspaper on Tuesday (which was cited by the environment minister) just one in every 400 coffee cups was recycled each year, prompting claims that big coffee chains like Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero and Pret were misleading customers over claims that their cups are environmentally friendly.

The U.K. uses seven million paper coffee cups each day, amounting to 2.5 billion a year, the newspaper reported.

The Times noted that either the coffee cups (in the case of Starbucks and Pret-a-manger) or the cardboard protective sleeves (in the case of Caffe Nero and Pret) surrounding them from the biggest chains carry a recycling symbol or say "recyclable" which might make customers think that the whole cup is recyclable when actually most of it is not due to the lamination process that stops the cups buckling. This needs to be stripped out especially before the cup can be recycled and there are few facilities that do this.

The coffee chains in question responded to the report, telling the Metro newspaper that they were working with the waste industry and researching how to improve the number of cups recycled.

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