NHS get through millions of disposable cups annually

Date posted: 11 April 2018

The NHS in England has purchased more than half a billion disposable cups over the last five years, new figures show.

Poly cup on beach
© Natasha Ewins

The service should move away from using polystyrene, which is not easily recyclable and move to a system where cups are collected and recycled.

Dr Sue Kinsey,
Senior Pollution Policy Officer
Marine Conservation Society

The data emerged a day after Waitrose said it would be removing all takeaway disposable coffee cups from its branches by the autumn, saving more than 52 million cups a year.

The figures, from data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association, come amid pressure on the UK government to take action on disposable coffee cups. The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, said in the spring statement that the government would consider a ‘latte’ levy on disposable coffee cups “alongside other options”.

One London trust, Guy’s and St Thomas’, purchased almost 30 million cups over a five-year period, with 6,258,249 purchased in one year alone.

Responses from 174 NHS acute, mental health and community trusts found that they had purchased 609,830,335 disposable cups over the last five years - the equivalent of more than 334,000 per day. Based on the latest population estimates, that works out as 11 disposable cups for every person currently living in England.

Over five years –

Disposable cups are purchased across the NHS for hot drinks, cold drinks and dispensing medicines. While some can be readily recycled others are considerably harder to recycle - such as plastic-lined coffee cups or polystyrene.

Some trusts were not even able to identify how many disposable cups they were purchasing.

Earlier this year England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, called on the NHS - as one of the world’s largest employers – to cut its pollutant footprint.

Some trusts have already taken steps to reduce the use of single use plastics and cut down on waste.

A number of hospitals have reintroduced china cups to their wards to reduce the number of disposable cups while others have made significant pledges to reduce the use of single use plastic and paper cups.

Dr Sue Kinsey, MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer, said “If it really is an impossibility to wash cups, at the very least, the service should move away from using polystyrene, which is not easily recyclable and move to a system where cups are collected and recycled.”

It has also emerged that many Government departments cannot provide information on the number of disposable cups they are purchasing.

Of 20 Whitehall departments contacted by the Press Association, only seven gave any information about the numbers of disposable cups purchased over the past five years.

A Government spokesman said that it is “committed to reducing its own use of single use plastics”, but the official response did not address the figures highlighted across the NHS in England.

Former health minister Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, said: “Just like the rest of us, NHS leaders should crack down on these wasteful purchases by encouraging the use of reusable cups wherever possible.”

Dr Nick Scriven, President of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “Aside from the harsh environmental impact of such vast numbers, we also have to consider the great inefficiencies of such huge amounts of waste.”

A spokesman from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said: “Guy’s and St Thomas’ is one of the biggest trusts in the country and includes a large dental hospital where a high number of plastic cups are used in a clinical setting. The figures provided also include all disposable cups used and sold in the Trust’s many catering outlets.

“As an organisation, we are committed to providing the most sustainable healthcare services possible. We have a number of initiatives which aim to reduce the number of disposable cups that we use.”

Do you want to help stop the plastic tide? We are currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

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