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After the charge on plastic grocery bags—could coffee cups be next?

Jeffrey Phelps | Aurora | Getty Images

Thanks to a 5 pence (6 cent) charge on single-use plastic grocery bags in the U.K, the British government has forecast there will be 6 billion fewer bags in circulation and a boost to the environment - but why stop there?

"Taking six billion plastic bags out of circulation is fantastic news for all of us – it will mean our precious marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and future generations won't be saddled with mountains of plastic sat taking hundreds of years to break down in landfill sites," environment minister Therese Coffey said in a statement.

"The 5p charge has clearly been a huge success – not only for our environment but for good causes across the country that have benefited from an impressive £29 million raised," Coffey added.

The environmental impact of plastic bags is significant. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) says that animals can both mistake them for food and get tangled up in them. This can cause a range of problems, including infections, strangulation and in serious cases death.

"We are delighted to see that the bag charge in England is showing positive results," the MCS's Sue Kinsey said in a statement. "This is a significant reduction that will benefit the environment as a whole, and our sea life in particular."

Charging consumers for plastic bags is nothing new, however. In Ireland, for example, a plastic bag levy has been in place since 2002. Following the introduction of the charge – initially 15 cent (17 cents) a bag compared to 22 cent today – plastic bag usage fell from around 328 bags per capita to just 21, according to the Irish government. That figure fell to 14 bags per capita in 2014.

Now that the plastic bag charge has proved to be a success in the U.K., could we see charges for other types of packaging introduced?

"Charges for single use coffee cups would also change people's behavior, but also their perception that the item they have has a value," Laura Foster, head of pollution at the MCS, told CNBC via email.


Adding value to packaging via a returns scheme could also have merit in terms of reducing wastage, Foster said.

"There are (also) a lot of studies on drinks containers – plastic and glass bottles and cans," Foster added. "Where there is a deposit refund system, it is rare to find these items littered because they are seen to have a value."

While the introduction of charges and refund systems can have an effect, the use of sustainable, environmentally friendly materials also has a role to play.

Earlier this year, Florida based Saltwater Brewery announced that – alongside advertising house We Believers – they had designed and prototyped edible six pack rings that had been made using the by-products of their beer making process "that instead of killing animals, feeds them."

The Ecoffee Cup is another example of packaging with green credentials. Made from organic bamboo fiber and non-GMO corn starch, its makers describe it as being dishwasher safe and usable for years if looked after properly. The company also claims that when a user is finished with their cup, they can soak it in boiling water and throw it on their organic compost heap, where it will biodegrade.

For food and other retail goods to be even kinder to the environment, Foster said single-use packaging should be removed and designed so it can be recycled.

"Packaging which is a composite material, including different types of plastic, can be extremely challenging to recycle," she added.