Investigation reveals millions of throwaway cups in English hospitals

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

Data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association show that NHS trusts in England have purchased more than 600 million disposable cups since 2013.

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.

The news comes amid rising concern over the environmental impact of single-use throwaway items.

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, this works out as 11 disposable cups for every person currently living in England.

Greenpeace UK said the figures demonstrate “just how out of control our relationship with single-use plastic has become”.

Cups are used across the health service from waiting rooms to wards.

Plastic, foam and paper cups have become entrenched in NHS procurement.

Yet some trusts are not even able to identify how many disposable cups they are purchasing.

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.

Of those contacted, 196 responded, but six have been omitted from the data due to discrepancies within their responses.

Twenty seven trusts - including some large acute hospitals - are yet to respond and 16 said they did not hold the information requested.

Over five years 14 trusts purchased more than 10 million cups each - with some even reaching this figure in four years or less.

Among trusts that provided data in financial year totals, organisations admitted to purchasing a total of 457,578,999 disposable cups between 2013/14 and 2017/18.

The 34 trusts that submitted data in calendar year format cumulatively purchased 135,933,414 disposable cups over five years.

A number of trusts supplied additional purchase figures which were not assigned to any specific year. The total sum of these additional cups purchased was 16,317,922.

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.

In some settings there will be clinical reasons behind the use of single use cups - such as avoiding the use of glass in some mental health wards.

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.

The news comes as it was also revealed 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.

Commenting on the figures, Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “We all know we’re using far too much throwaway plastic, but these huge figures demonstrate just how out of control our relationship with single-use plastic has become.

“In the last five years the health service has used half a billion disposable cups - they can’t all be captured and recycled, so it’s time for the Government to step in and help suppliers find viable solutions.”

Dr Sue Kinsey, senior pollution policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), added: “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.”

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.”

Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “This is a staggering example of waste in the NHS.

“The NHS plays an important role in securing a sustainable future for generations to come and I hope the Secretary of State will intervene to ensure the health service is not shirking its responsibilities. Implementing a target to reduce disposable cup waste is a necessary start.”