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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
The Fish Basket

Cafe owner We are being persecuted by the 'latte levy' due to come in

Restaurant owner Peter Shanahan says businesses like his have done all they can to work sustainably and the new coffee cup levy will hurt that effort.

IN A PERFECT illustration of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, it appears now that the cafes and small business owners across the country who survived the effects of Covid-19 restrictions are currently battling for survival amidst energy and cost of living crises.

Despite facing such a challenging winter, the Government is sending another body blow our way in the form of the ill-conceived “latte levy.”

Minister Ossian Smyth and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have opened a six-week consultation to advance the rollout of the so-called “latte levy” as part of the Circular Economy Act, which will place a levy starting at 20 cent on single-use cups used to serve hot drinks such as tea and coffee.

The consultation invites retailers and the public to submit their views, and as a small business owner, I will be making mine very clear to Minister Smyth and his Department.

Coffee on the go

My business, The Fish Basket in West Cork, relies heavily on the to-go trade. Our small, family-owned business is committed to running an environmentally conscious enterprise, with sustainability running through the core of everything we do.

We are very proud to use locally sourced ingredients and 100% compostable packaging, certified to Cré standards, with the aim of minimising our environmental impact.

We have invested great time and effort as a business into shifting towards compostables and try to balance this with providing value for our customers.

Advocates of the latte levy complain that coffee cups pose a significant litter problem. While I think we all, industry included, should be doing more to reduce levels of littering, in my experience as a business owner operating in the beautiful, scenic outdoor surroundings of Long Strand Beach, our to-go customers have the utmost respect for the landscape of Clonakilty and make the effort to use the bins which we have equally made great efforts to provide.

With the right systems in place for waste collection, I don’t think single use cups are the problem that they have been made out to be, especially as so many homes have a brown bin that is collected and delivered to composting facilities here in Ireland.

I’d like to see the state do more to provide brown bins in public areas and to businesses so that the compostable products we use are disposed of properly.

Doing what we can

It frustrates me to see our efforts to use 100% compostable packaging dismissed. In fact, our use of compostables will actually be punished by the incoming latte levy, as these products will now be subjected to the same 20 cent charge that will be imposed on single-use cups with a high plastic or even 100% plastic content.

biodegradablecuppapercoffeecupcloseuprecycledisposablecompostable Shutterstock / VTT Studio Biodegradable cup Paper coffee cup close up Recycle Disposable compostable Shutterstock / VTT Studio / VTT Studio

A lot of business owners like myself are really trying to do the right thing, but when our margins have been obliterated by astronomical energy bills, it would be naive to think that every cafe owner will continue to invest in compostable cups when they could import cheaper plastic ones from China, given that everything will be slapped with the same levy anyway.

What’s most concerning is that Minister Smyth wants to use the levy as a starting point for an outright ban on single-use cups, and eventually extend this approach to all packaging like food containers used in takeaways. As a business that relies on a trade of flat whites and fish and chips, a ban on single-use packaging could be devastating.

The mechanics of providing reusable containers will be challenging – while we have a dishwasher on site, one won’t be enough to accommodate a surge in products that have to be washed and reused.

The costs of hiring extra staff to wash these products will seriously impact the bottom line of many cafes. Business concerns aside, the mind boggles at how the water and energy use involved in washing plastic reusables is in any way environmentally efficient.

Difficult times

Takeaway trade is the bread and butter of the coffee and hospitality sector in Ireland, which employs over 15,000 staff. Every day brings news of yet another cafe or restaurant closure, and a ban on reusables will further threaten the viability of small to-go businesses, especially the food trucks and horseboxes that sprung up during the pandemic.

emptyscenewithadarkstreetfoodvanstandingin Shutterstock / Gorodenkoff Shutterstock / Gorodenkoff / Gorodenkoff

While The Fish Basket has concerns about the financial blows and practicalities of trying to install an extra dishwasher or hire an extra pair of hands to wash dishes, this simply isn’t an option inside the tiny parameters of a food truck.

Our business originated as a food truck run by myself and my wife Elaine, and over time grew to become the restaurant we have today on Long Strand Beach. Food trucks and horseboxes are great innovations that help would-be restaurateurs across Ireland open a business on a shoestring and test their offering, especially during the busy summer tourist season that ignites the economy of so many of our regional and rural towns.

Without the ability to serve beverages and food in single use containers, the to-go business model of a food truck won’t be viable and will be rendered obsolete.

Even without a ban, the latte levy constitutes a punitive tax on small businesses that ultimately will not result in the best environmental outcome.

There was precious little consultation with the restaurant industry when this levy was being drafted, and when you scratch beyond the surface, the problems that the latte levy will cause become very clear. It is restaurant owners who will bear the burden of implementing this levy, yet our views are only being treated as an afterthought now that the legislation has been adopted.

If the Government is serious about a circular economy, it should invest in improving our waste system so that compostable and recyclable items can be easily disposed of into the appropriate waste streams.

I would also like to see the Government encourage businesses to embrace climate-friendly alternatives. This could be achieved by creating incentives for businesses to switch to compostable items and providing brown bins for commercial and retail use. If Minister Smyth proceeds with the levy, it could operate by only applying to cups that can’t be recycled or composted, or that contain higher levels of plastics, with exemptions for the more sustainable paper-based options like the kind we use at The Fish Basket.

I hope more cafes and restaurants across the country can be empowered to embrace sustainability, with the right kind of incentives that will help us along the road without kicking us in the teeth.

We have until 25 November to create noise, and I hope I can encourage my fellow small business owners to have their say as part of the public consultation. Now is the time to lay down to Minister Smyth and his Department why this levy is unworkable and will only set Ireland back in achieving its environmental goals, while simultaneously threatening the survival of Ireland’s cafes and restaurants.

Peter Shanahan is the owner of The Fish Basket, a cafe and seafood restaurant in Long Strand Beach, Clonakilty in Co Cork, which he runs with his wife Elaine, a chef and baker. Peter’s background is in the fisheries industry and he proudly uses fresh local produce from his native West Cork to run a sustainable business on the Wild Atlantic Way.

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Peter & Elaine Shanahan
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