Back in August 2016, we started to formulate a plan to raise awareness amongst our customers (both wholesale and retail) about the truly shocking situation we are facing with regards to disposable (or non-disposable as the case may be) coffee cups. April 2017 saw us launch our ‘Spotlight Range’ – retail coffee packed into boxes that had been made using recycled takeaway cups. We covered every inch of the available space of the packaging with content about the issue we are facing in the UK, you can read the original blog I wrote back then here.

Now, in January 2018, it seems the wider country is starting to wake up to the disastrous situation we are in, proposing a £0.25p tax on every takeaway cup of coffee sold as part of an effort to deter people from this wasteful habit. Having seen the use of plastic carrier bags decline by nearly 85 per cent in supermarkets since the 5p charge was introduced, you can see where the thinking has come from here.

As a result of the announcement on the 5th January, we have been talking widely to our customers who have started to raise concerns about the wasteful nature of the coffee industry, to understand how we can start to tackle these issues together. For reference, our business was established in 2013 with the aim of providing specialty grade ethically sourced coffee to quality focused businesses around the UK. Our founding principles were quality and ethics incorporating values of social and environmental responsibility, aiming to have a positive impact wherever we trade. Unfortunately given the very global nature of the coffee industry (and the unlikely event that the UK will ever be able to grow coffee on a large scale!) we do have a fairly large carbon footprint to offload through our production process but we have been aware of this from day one and have always built sustainability into our business plan. As part of this commitment, we have always looked at ways we can be more sustainable and environmentally focused in our business decisions and have developed practices centred around this philosophy. Here are some of the ways we currently work that highlight this:

·       We recycle all of the bi products from our wholesale roastery offering with Meanwood Urban Valley Farm who use the waste ‘chaff’ to help compost their crops.

·       We chose an environmentally focused waste firm to work with who provide us with detailed reports about how much we have recycled, highlighting where we can improve.

·       We chose to work with recycled and reclaimed materials when putting together our first retail space at Leeds Dock, including the flooring which is made from 99 per cent recycled material.

·       The North Star Coffee Shop & General Store is aiming to become a zero waste space, we already have initiatives in place here to avoid food waste and are looking into ways of repurposing waste ingredients.

·       We have developed delivery routes that aim to minimise our carbon footprint for our wholesale offering.

·       We work with coffee farms that have a commitment to setting aside land to act as natural ecosystems.

·       All of our producing partners are committed to values of environmental responsibility in their agricultural practices. The estates we work with are mostly Rainforest Alliance certified working in line with the Sustainable Agriculture Network. This ensures that coffee waste water is fully filtered before being returned to the ecosystem, that only an approved list of pesticides and fungicides are used on their crops and that producers responsibly care for their crops in a way that ensures their survival in years to come.

·       We use a paperless accounting system.

·       We are constantly searching and pushing for a biodegradable coffee bag that will maintain the quality of our product, this is not yet something that exists but we are happy to sell our coffee to customers who bring in reuseable sealable containers for their beans.

The challenge we have on our hands is how to sustainably dispose of the many one use cups now used frequently in the retail end of our business (North Star Coffee Shop & General Store) of which the trade is currently at around 50 per cent takeaway.

One thing we looked into before we even opened our doors was to understand if there was a way we could work with biodegradable cup manufacturer Vegware to initiate some kind of collection in Leeds to ensure that businesses had a route to responsibly dispose of its takeaway waste. It wasn’t even a question in our mind to work with Vegware, we have done for any event we have ever run since we founded the business in 2013 – favouring them for their responsible packaging and brand ethos. However we do acknowledge (as you will read from our original blog post written nearly a year ago) that this is not a sustainable solution given the lack of appropriate recycling facilities that are equipped to be able to biodegrade the Vegware products. There is no good in people buying a coffee in a takeaway cup that they are led to believe is compostable when the likelihood is that cup will never make it to an equipped facility – there are currently only two in the UK that successfully compost less than a quarter of a per cent of the 2.5 billion cups that are disposed of every year….in the UK alone.

It is frustrating to me that the Government have only now started to talk about this issue, we have been looking for a solution for the last four years and the problem lies in local waste infrastructure – there is currently no separation of takeaway cups in our towns and city centres. Think, if only there was a bin on every street corner that was designed only for the disposal of takeaway cups and a weekly collection specifically for those bins – problem solved!

Happily, this is something that is in the making with Vegware who have successfully set up such a scheme amongst their customers in Edinburgh…and plans are afoot to roll out something similar in Leeds whereby we would have a dedicated bin at our site that would have a specific collection on a weekly basis, ensuring those cups make it to an appropriate facility to allow them to compost. We have been in discussions with Vegware since last year and hope to have an update on this in the Spring so watch this space…

It has been fascinating to see the reaction stirred up amongst the general public by the suggestion of a Latte Levy. Whilst it has been amazing to see the issues of coffee specific waste being more widely discussed, it is certainly disconcerting to think about the potential impact that a Latte Levy could have on our business both from the perspective of the customers we supply with our wholesale coffee and our own retail space – grabbing a coffee on the go is something that is imperative to many of the businesses we are working with and makes up a huge part of their trade.

With recent increases in costs due to Brexit, independent coffee shops and other outlets are already struggling to make the necessary margin and there is an argument that to sustain the supply of specialty grade coffee, we do need to charge even more per cup to continue to support the coffee farmer in a world facing ever increasing uncertainty due to global warming.

What is clear is that we are going to have to work together to find a solution that really does start to make a dent in the issue of waste, but not in the businesses of independent owners. It is our hope that the idea of a Latte Levy does not deter people from their morning cup of the good stuff, but rather draws attention to the reality of the situation we are facing with our global environment. Happily we are seeing a rise in the conscious consumer, people care more deeply about the impacts of their consumer decisions and are starting to react to brands that are not doing enough to clear up after themselves. There are a whole host of reuseable cups out there and you will find in most instances that you will be rewarded for using them with money off your purchase. Keep Cups have been on sale in the North Star Coffee Shop & General Store since we opened and we have happily had to increase our business with them since this announcement was made at the start of the year. We offer 20p off the price of any coffee to customers using a reuseable cup and will be offering further incentives to the offices surrounding us when we commence the disposal sceme with Vegware where loyalty cards and vouchers will be given in return for people bringing back their takeaway cups. We really hope this is the start of the end of the problem, we are certainly going forward with optimism and hope despite the scale of the issue knowing that we have the support of our customers behind us and pushing us to do more.

If you have any questions or suggestions at how we can improve our environmental practices we would love to hear from you – drop me a line to hols@northstarroast.com and let’s start a conversation!