Data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association show that more than six hundred million disposable cups have been purchased by the NHS in England over the last five years.
Disposable cups made of plastic, foam and paper are widely used throughout the health service, for hot drinks, cold drinks and dispensing medicines. Although some disposable cups can be easily recycled, others such as plastic-lined coffee cups or polystyrene are much harder to recycle. In some circumstances, such as avoiding the use of glass in some mental health wards, there are clinical or safety reasons for using disposable paper or plastic cups.
A total of 223 NHS acute, mental health and community provider trusts were asked to supply information on the number of disposable drinking cups they had purchased in each year for the last five years. 196 trusts responded to the request for information, but data from 6 trusts was omitted due to discrepancies within their responses. Twenty seven trusts are yet to respond and 16 said they did not hold the information. Together, these 196 trusts had purchased 609,830,335 disposable cups over the last five years.
It’s no good people blaming the NHS. The NHS has always been driven by governments, both past and present, and while a few opposition politicians such as Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, have tried to suck up a few political brownie points by blaming the current government, the reality is that any of our 3 main political parties could have done something about it at any time in the past decade or two, and none did.
It’s not just the NHS either. It seems that until the recent awareness and concerns about plastic pollution, civil servants didn’t think about keeping track of what resources government departments consume and throw away each year. Of 20 Whitehall departments contacted by the Press Association, only seven were able to give any information about the numbers of disposable cups purchased over the past five years.
Given the introduction of levies on plastic bags, recent attempts to add a levy to coffee cups and the proposed tax and deposit schemes for plastic bottles, the man on the street might yet again wonder how government is so keen to tax, penalise and lecture the population of the UK without first getting its own house in order.
Happily, changes are planned. Earlier this year England’s chief medical officer called on the NHS to cut its pollution footprint, and over the past few years a number of NHS trusts have already taken steps to reduce their reliance on single-use cups.