Source and validity of data used to fight divisive tax queried
Data used to plead the case of small Irish coffee shops opposed to the planned latte levy was compiled by powerful alliances of some of the world’s largest packaging companies.
Some of the findings quoted are UK-based, more than four years old and derived from research not publicly available.
Others come from a global industry-commissioned study that used industry-provided information that is not being made publicly available because of non-disclosure agreements.
The data is being used in a last-minute public relations offensive aimed at stopping the Circular Economy Bill becoming law.
The bill proposes measures to disincentivise single-use packaging, including a 20c levy on items such as disposable coffee cups.
Almost 200 million disposable cups are used in Ireland each year, creating huge and costly waste management, litter and marine pollution problems.
The levy, which would be a world first, is designed to get customers into the habit of bringing with them their own long-life keep cups instead.
Retail Excellence Ireland (REI), which represents Irish retailers, has fronted a campaign of opposition to the move over the past fortnight.
It has repeatedly cited two studies, one of which claims to show that a levy would have limited effect in switching consumers to keep cups – 6pc was the figure quoted – but would turn 8pc off buying a coffee altogether, which would be very damaging to the sector.
REI managing director Duncan Graham described the findings as reflecting consumer sentiment “at the moment” in one of numerous media interviews.
However, the results of the study were published early in 2018 in the UK by a group called the Paper Cup Alliance.
Mr Graham told the Irish Independent he did not know much about the origins of the study as he had not seen it.
He said he had been given the figures by CupPrint, an Ennis-based disposable paper cup manufacturer owned by Huhtamaki, a Finnish-owned multinational with plants in 38 countries.
CupPrint executives had a meeting with members of the Joint Oireachtas Environment and Climate Action Committee in recent weeks to discuss concerns around the levy.
Fianna Fáil TD Cormac Devlin, a member of the committee, subsequently attempted to have the Circular Economy Bill amended so that the levy would only apply to disposable plastic cups and would start at one cent.
His amendments were not accepted but the bill is still working its way through the Seanad.
Terry Fox, managing director of CupPrint, said he did not have the study on customer sentiment but would attempt to source it.
He said he thought it might have been produced by Wrap, a British non-profit that works with companies on sustainable practices.
Wrap did not produce the report. In fact, Wrap earlier this year produced a report for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and recommended the introduction of levies to discourage customers from using disposable cups.
The report was produced by consultancy firm Ecuity, which has since been taken over by another company.
It has not been possible to source the complete study and only headline figures were reported in British media at the time. The Paper Cup Alliance, which hired Ecuity, is an industry grouping that, in its own words, “represents the leading suppliers and manufacturers of paper tea and coffee cups in the UK and European markets”.
In submissions to the UK government in 2019 and 2020, when a similar levy was proposed, it listed six members, including Huhtamaki.
The Paper Cup Alliance is represented in lobbying by communications consultants, Instinctif, whose website highlights its success in opposing the abandoned UK levy as a key achievement.
The second report cited repeatedly in the past week was carried out last by Danish consultants Ramboll for the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA).
It concludes that switching from disposable cups to reusable alternatives would be worse for the climate and the environment because of the embedded carbon in plastic keep cups, the increased energy and water used in washing them, and their consignment to landfill or incineration when they are no longer useful.
According to the EPPA, however: “The Ramboll life cycle assessment study relies on primary data from the paper, packaging and food-service industries.”
Only a summary of the study is publicly available. A request via the EPPA contact email in the Netherlands for a copy of the supporting data was not answered.
The EPPA lists 10 member companies on its website, some of which are also members of the Paper Cup Alliance, including Huhtamaki.
The late surge of campaigning against the levy has come as something of a surprise as it was first signalled in 2017 and consultation with the food, beverage and hospitality industry on it began in 2019.
Tomorrow, the Restaurants Association of Ireland is hosting an information event in Dublin, to which politicians are invited to hear their concerns about it.
Voice Ireland, an environmental group which has been to the fore of campaigns to minimise packaging and single-use container waste, urged TDs and senators not to back down.
“Industry pushback against the levy at this stage is a little disingenuous,” Mindy O’Brien, Voice Ireland chief executive, said.
“This levy has been coming down the line for some time now, yet we still haven’t seen any voluntary moves from retail or the packaging industry that will solve this issue.
“This latte levy will create the change that we need.”
Ms O’Brien said she had “major concerns” over the credence given to the Ramboll research. She said she understood that a levy would require changes for cafes but said in her experience they would embrace the challenge.
“Our Conscious Cup campaign has managed to get nearly every cafe in Ireland accepting reusable cups again after Covid,” she said.
Mr Graham said in media interviews this week he was particularly concerned about small, independent coffee shops. However, he told the Irish Independent he had carried out no survey of their views. He said he had spoken mainly to the larger coffee shop chains.
Asked if he felt he was consciously or unconsciously doing the bidding of global packaging companies who stood to lose if coffee shops did not have to buy their disposable cups, he replied: “No, because I’m not, I’m doing it on behalf of our members.
“It’s a levy at a time when we’re seeing the cost of ingredients and business going up and it’s a concern for our members.”
CupPrint in Ennis employs almost 200 people but Mr Fox said he was not worried for its future as most of the plant’s products were exported and would not be affected by a levy here.
Asked if he was campaigning against the levy to represent the concerns of the parent company, Huhtamaki, he said he was not.
“We would be representing our own concerns,” he said.
“We made a business of producing sustainable products with our paper cups and I believe it is not the best direction to go down to replace environmentally sustainable paper cups with plastic alternatives.”
Mr Fox defended the Ramboll study, saying its methods had passed ISO quality assurance standards.
He said he would try to source the supporting data but was doubtful of success as it was subject to non-disclosure agreements.
If the Circular Economy Bill is passed, the levy is due to come into effect late his year.