Revealed: How government departments dump millions of disposable coffee cups every year

Written by Emilio Casalicchio on 2 February 2018 in News

Data shows scale of challenge to remove single use plastics from across Whitehall

Environment secretary Michael Gove has given all Cabinet ministers a reusable cup Photo: PA

Government departments have used more than four million disposable coffee cups in just the past four years, official figures have revealed.

Data released by a small number of departments showed that 4.6 million single-use cups had been purchased since 2014 – indicating that the actual number will be far higher.

One department used almost a million cups in one year, while others were well into the hundreds of thousands.


The revelation comes as the government tries to crack down on waste. Environment secretary Michael Gove bought each Cabinet minister a reusable coffee cup last month after he was admonished in the press for carrying a throw-away model into Downing Street.

Gove has also pledged to eliminate single-use plastics in central government offices as part of a 25-year ‘green Brexit’ vision.

The Ministry of Justice alone used almost 1 million cups over the last financial year, including in prisons, according to the figures unearthed by the Labour MP Mary Creagh in a set of parliamentary questions.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Office used more than 650,000 two years running, and the Department of Health used almost 1 million between October 2014 and September last year.

The Department for International Development said it bought 52,000 compostable cups in 2017 and 36,000 card and plastic cups.

And the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it bought almost 300,000 last year – down by more than 100,000 compared with 2014

Answering a question asked by Labour MP Catherine West, the Department for International Trade said it used about 50,000 disposable coffee cups a year and a massive 250,000 disposable water cups.

West told CSW’s sister site PoliticsHome there was a "moral duty" tackle the disposable culture which "starts with the prime minister getting her our own government in order".

Green MP Caroline Lucas added that it was “truly shocking that the government has purchased over 4 million disposable coffee cups in the past five years – they should be leading the way on this issue, not playing catch up.

"Though some departments have seen an improvement, the overall total shows that ministers simply haven't been taking this problem seriously – and that they need to act fast to drastically reduce the amount of disposable coffee cups they are buying and using.

"We know that the vast majority of coffee cups aren't recycled – so we need a strategy in place to make sure that government departments and the House of Commons cut down on the amount they use."

The Home Office said their cups were biodegradable, while a number of departments said they run discount schemes for staff who use their own reusable cups when buying a hot drink.

The figures come as the Environmental Audit Committee chaired by Creagh criticised the MoJ's record on environmental sustainability.

The ministry has pledged to ‘embed sustainability in everything it does’ but has failed to meet its own environmental targets in a number of key areas, including carbon emissions, ultra-low emissions vehicles, and contractor oversight.

Creagh said that as the government moves to implement its 25-year environment plan, the MoJ must lead from the front in reducing its environmental footprint, as it has the second largest estate of any government department.

“The ministry is failing to meet many of its own unambitious targets. It should ensure that it delivers on its current environmental commitments and set new, ambitious targets as soon as possible,” she said.

“The government should also review the oversight and governance arrangements of contractors’ performance. This is all the more important following the collapse of Carillion, who managed approximately 50 prison service sites.”

Additional reporting by Richard Johnstone

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Emilio Casalicchio
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Emilio Casalicchio is chief reporter for PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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CivilbutnotServile (not verified)

Submitted on 2 February, 2018 - 15:23
...and in my large Whitehall Dept, the well known high street Coffee giant, which has the franchise in our building, has recently started to refuse to fill re-usable coffee mugs, cups, etc so that one has to use their disposable cardboard cups! I'm making my own from now on...

An Analyst (not verified)

Submitted on 2 February, 2018 - 18:19
Four million disposable cups in four years is around two per year per civil servant. That's not profligate use. Some people can do more than that in a day! Mostly one sees people with re-usable mugs, but sometimes a takeaway cup is needed when people lose, break or forget their re-usable one, or we have more visitors than usual.

¬_¬ (not verified)

Submitted on 5 February, 2018 - 10:00
so Whitehall departments are purchasing disposable cups (and therefore likely coffee and other refreshments), whilst us lot on the coal face have had our water coolers, tea, coffee and biscuits taken away from us. As always, one rule for us, one rule for them.

Uncivil Servant (not verified)

Submitted on 5 February, 2018 - 14:52
Sadly not - we buy our own tea, coffee and biscuits and have done at least since I joined the Civil Service in 2006. The disposable coffee cups are in the (contractor-run) coffee shops and canteens that some of us are lucky enough to have where we can buy the odd americano. We do get free access to filtered and chilled tap water though.

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