A business selling compostable coffee cups and biodegradable food boxes was bubbling along nicely until MPs suggested a “latte levy” early last year. Overnight, Vegware’s website traffic tripled and its sales suddenly soared.
Launched in Edinburgh in 2006 with just three products – a biodegradable fork, spoon and knife – Vegware’s reputation and range had been growing steadily amid mounting consumer anxiety about the 2.5bn coffee cups the UK throws away each year. Since those MPs called for a 25p charge on plastic disposable cups and ministers announced a ban on plastic straws its sales have rocketed, growing by more than 50% in a year to £31m.
With the EU considering similar controls, Vegware’s exports also jumped by a third, leading to a 50% increase in staffing as well as new distribution centres in the Netherlands and California. Joe Frankel, its founder and chief executive, forecasts sales of £40m worldwide this year, including 500m compostable cups.
Unlike conventional takeaway cups, which use a hard-to-separate plastic lining to seal in liquid, Vegware uses a maize-based biodegradable plastic known as PLA. Its cutlery is made from maize and potato-based bioplastic, while its plates, bowls and takeaway food boxes use a sugar cane residue called bagasse, sourced from Thailand.
But a company at the forefront of eco-friendly packaging is now facing a threat from an unexpected source – the Scottish Green party. The minority SNP government needs the Greens’ six votes at Holyrood to get its policies through – and the Greens want compostable cups included in any future latte levy.
While France is excluding compostable cups from its ban on single use plastics, the Scottish Greens and other campaigners point out they need to be disposed of in specialist composting plants – or in council food composting bins at home – rather than in ordinary waste dumps. Vegware’s cups also use virgin wood pulp like conventional cups.
Frankel insists a latte levy is misguided and that it ignores a far bigger waste problem posed by the surge in disposable packaging from sandwich shops and the explosion in takeaway home deliveries.
What about the plastic lids and stirrers for coffee cups, or polystyrene takeaway boxes, plastic-coated sandwich boxes, and waxed muffin wrappers the same shops sell, he says. It makes far greater sense, he adds, to ratchet up the costs of using rubbish dumps by significantly increasing the landfill tax.
That tax, where supermarkets and coffee chains pay £88.95 a tonne to dispose of waste, is intended to encourage firms such as Costa, Pret a Manger and McDonald’s to cut waste or embrace recyclable packaging and composting.
“I guess the latte levy is well intentioned but once you start looking at the detail of it it doesn’t really make a whole pile of sense,” Frankel said. “For me the only consistent way is to just make landfill incredibly expensive because then all the manufacturers will be forced to produce products with recycling in mind, and then all the operators will have to get their recycling streams working sensibly.”
One of its highest profile customers is the Houses of Parliament in London, which replaced its plastic food packaging with Vegware in September 2018, as have the Home Office and the Foreign Office.
Vegware’s profile spiked again in March after Michael Gove, the environment secretary, drank from a disposable glass at a Westminster committee hearing as he claimed he was giving up single-use plastics for Lent. Challenged on Twitter about the apparent hypocrisy, he tweeted back his cup was made by Vegware, and compostable.
To answer critics’ concerns about how compostable cups should be recycled, Vegware is promising customers a “closed-loop” contract, where it supplies its products to businesses and then disposes of them. Yet that arrangement only covers central Scotland and south-west Englandand overall, commercial composting only covers 38% of UK postcodes.
Frankel said the goal should be full UK-wide composting coverage, to match the surge in home deliveries by firms such as Uber Eats or Deliveroo and including fast food chains which use disposable packaging. He said food waste left in compostable packaging is valuable too: it is nutrient rich, making it a compostable resource worth saving.
Richard Dixon, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, believes products such as Vegware’s have a place but only where disposable food packaging is genuinely needed. He suggests a latte levy could be lower on compostable cups, adding that takeaway food companies were already shifting towards recyclable packaging.
“If you were going to a festival you should have a reuseable cup for your beer, but for your falafels, you should probably have Vegware,” Dixon said.