Starbucks’ Cup Summit: Does the Cost of Recycling Runneth Over?

Filed in Waste News by on May 16, 2009 10 Comments
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Starbucks coffee cup; soon to be recycled?

Starbucks coffee cup; soon to be recycled?

[via GreenBiz]

Can your Starbucks coffee cup be recycled, and if so, is it really worth it?
Starbucks’ Ben Packard, the vice president of Global Responsibility, and his running mate, Jim Hanna, the director of Environmental Impact, think so — and they invited 30 cup, cupstock and coating manufacturers, recyclers, waste managers and university researchers to Seattle this week to have a chat about it.

The experts were matched up with an equal number of Starbucks professionals in sessions that included a talk led by CEO Howard Schultz. From Monday’s opening reception and dinner through the next full day at SBUX headquarters, every aspect of the iconic coffee cup was discussed as if the subject was “the beans.”

Read the rest of the article on the GreenBiz website


About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (10)

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  1. Ben says:

    Part of the appeal of the takeaway business is that the product comes in convenient easily disposed of low value packaging. It makes it as easy as possible for customers to buy whatever they want without planning ahead, it just removes a barrier to sales.

    I’d like to see them introduce a reusable cup, but will people use them without an incentive, and can that be done without adding a barrier to sales. It doesn’t even matter if they find a way to sell coffee in reusable cups cheaper than current prices – when there is a cheaper alternative people will feel they’re paying more for the cup and having to throw it away, and that might make them less willing to buy takeaway coffee so often when they don’t have a reusable cup.

    We’ll see what happens, but one thing they could stop doing is using white paper. Paper isn’t naturally white, it’s brown, and it needs to be bleached with a whole load of environmentally dubious chemicals that end up in the environment. I accept we need white paper for printing on, but we don’t need white coffee cups, envelopes, paper bags, boxes, or many of the other things that go through this extra environmentally damaging step for little obvious reason.

  2. John Costigane says:

    @Ben: The Zero Waste approach, to recurring waste packaging, is to go Reusable. Containers have been a big part of our counter to unthinking waste. Liquids, hot/cold, are another issue we need to resolve. This will involve liquid-friendly containers, possibly metal.

    People should take their own suitable, cleaned containers to Starbucks, et al, to make Zero Waste purchases. As always, we have to lead the charge against the inertia in business generally. Businesses using such a system is impractical since collection, cleaning adds to cost.

    This type of consumer activity will not work overnight. The best way would be to charge less for Zero Waste coffee, and advertise the new setup. Starbucks could provide their own metal containers but these should remain untitled to allow use in other coffee shops. If they are serious about Zero Waste they have to think Reusable.

  3. Mrs Green says:

    @Ben: Hi Ben, thanks for your great comment and welcome to the site! I agree with everything you wrote – the bottom line is sales and Starbucks won’t compromise on that for the environment.

    We’ve talked quite a lot on the site about offering returns on items. Perhaps they could adopt a policy like some supermarkets have on reusing carrier bags – for every bag you use of your own, you get a point on your loyalty card.

    A more ‘instant hit’ from Starbucks might be a reduction on the price of the coffee if you provide your reusable cup. Simpler, might be a system like the Tomra ( where someone gets an incentive for returning their recyclable cup.

    But like you say, people want convenience and don’t want to plan ahead. If they’re anything like Mr Green they can’t even function until the caffeine has hit the spot!

    It will be interesting to see what comes of this …

    @John Costigane: John, maybe two price lists would be good and show the customer instant incentive for reuse. I just can’t see Starbucks providing metal cups, but I look forward to being proven wrong.

  4. Deb from Boston says:

    Here in the US Starbucks offers a discount if you bring your own travel cup – is that not the case in the UK?

  5. Mrs Green says:

    @Deb from Boston: I have to confess, I don’t know. I’m not a coffee drinker and I’ve never set foot inside a starbucks! Maybe someone else will see your question and answer …

  6. Jim says:

    yep – Starbucks offers discounts to customers that bring their own mugs into the stores. It’s 10 cents in the U.S. and 10p in the UK (and variable equivalent amounts in other countries). You can also request a ceramic mug if you’re staying in the store.
    But a bigger question is why you never set foot inside a Starbucks, Mrs Green? I work for the company and am curious.

  7. The main reason I have never set foot in a Starbucks is I think the prices are too high, I’d rather take a flask in the car.

    Call me a skinflint if you will but when there are usually 3 of us it all adds up.

  8. Ben says:

    @John Costigane: Thank you for your comments. I don’t doubt we can solve the waste problem with the cups if everyone put it as the first priority, but I am questioning how serious they are about reducing the waste they generate. A lot could change, and I hope it does!

    @Mrs Green: Thank you for the welcome! I have to agree it’s about the bottom line for businesses, and take away is about being able to provide the easiest and best tasting whatever. That’s what pulls people in, and I’m sure we’ve all been convinced a few times. I got hit by the take away convenience a couple of days ago. Stressful week, no time to shop let alone cook, middle of exams, friends were over for the evening. We had a lovely curry but sadly tipped a huge pile of plastic, soiled card and alumnium trays in to the landfill that evening.

    Reducing waste in the takeaway business is challenging on lots of levels, I’m not aware of any working examples yet. A low/zero waste take away business would probably be a first, and sadly could struggle to compete with others who are simply less work for their customers. We’re clearly going to have to talk business and environment to make green initiatives start happening in businesses. Or we’re going to have to go the legislation route.

    Starbucks could perhaps sell us on reusable containers without making us feel we’re paying more for disposables (which could be a barrier to sales, even if a reasonable thing to do) by offering a non-financial benefit to them? Perhaps something like those cards they stamp, where you save up for a free coffee.

    As for anyone who wants a coffee without disposable cups while out, I often go to pubs during the day to buy a coffee. Usually they sell good coffee in ceramic cups (they’ll have the washing facilities) and you can nearly always get a seat it seems. They tend to be cheaper too, many pubs sell large cups of filter coffee for under £1 each.

  9. Deb from Boston says:

    I do have faith that w/ consumer demand and new knowledge Starbucks and others in the fast food service industry can change. I recall McDonald’s changing from foam clamshells to the current paper wraps for their sandwiches a number of years ago – so I did a quick search and learned that they actually changed from cardboard clamshells to foam DUE TO LESS ENVIROMENTAL IMPACT! They then changed to the paper with new. For more info:

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @Jim: Hi Jim; welcome to myzerowaste and thanks for giving us information about reduced rates for using your own cup in Starbucks.
    My reason for never going to Starbucks is threefold.
    First is I don’t drink coffee or tea.
    Second, if I did, I have no intention of paying someone £1.50 (or whatever it costs) for the privilege of making me something I can do just as easily myself (and I can get it exactly how I like it).
    Third, I wouldn’t support a company that produces so much waste.

    @Ben: Hi Ben,
    I can certainly appreciate the lure of a takeaway in the situation you speak of. Mr Green has done similar as well, in the past – working a 12 hour day, travelling 300 miles home, the last thing you’re going to do is get to work in the kitchen when you get home.
    Yesterday, we picked up fish and chips. They were just about to wrap it in paper, then put in a polystyrene case, with a plastic fork and place in a carrier bag. I told the guy that I did not want any plastic to get rid of and asked him to wrap in just paper. I refused the fork; told him I had my own bag and he seemed very impressed. I certainly had a beaming smile from him; so either that or he thought I was nuts LOL!

    I like your idea of a card to be stamped every time you reuse in Starbucks. I think that could work. People love incentives!

    @Deb from Boston: Hi Deb,
    Ah yes, McDonalds wrapping in paper, that rings an old bell somewhere in my memory banks. Actually, McDonalds aren’t too bad, as far as I remember; you usually get a cardboard tray for take outs, if I remember.
    Thanks for the link; I’ll go and take a read through.

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