There’s perhaps no greater cultural artifact of 20th-century coffee culture than the single-use Starbucks cup. The cups are iconic: Whether they’re the traditional green siren-printed vessels or the annually debated red cup holiday designs, customers buy into the branding so loyally that Starbucks even sells identically designed reusable versions of the white and clear cups.
But like disposable K-cups and plastic straws before them, the disposable cups are also increasingly a target for environmental groups. According to the International Coffee Organization, roughly 600 billion paper and plastic cups are distributed worldwide each year. Starbucks estimates it’s responsible for around 1 percent of the total, or 6 billion cups annually. And after consumers polish off their lattes and iced teas, those cups frequently end up at the landfill — or even worse, in the ocean as plastic pollution.
Starbucks is far from the only culprit contributing to the world’s growing pollution issues, but it’s frequently called out for its contributions. Environmental groups have characterized the company as a “Cup Monster”; as recently as March 6, the group Stand.earth, alongside environmental groups worldwide, circulated a petition calling on the coffee giant to address its giant pile of single-use cups.
Now, the Seattle-based chain appears ready to do something about it. On March 20, the chain promised $10 million to a competition to develop a better single-use coffee cup — one with the capabilities to be composted or recycled. “We want to make sure this technology is available to everyone because it’s the right thing to do,” Andy Corlett, director of packaging research and development for Starbucks, says in a release. “The idea of environmental sustainability in packaging is not just a Starbucks issue. It’s a global issue. Anything that gets us closer to that goal is not something we want to keep to ourselves.”
For the competition, Starbucks is partnering with Closed Loop Partners and its Center for the Circular Economy, a private investment group focused on sustainable consumer goods and technology. Still, it’s easy for critics to be skeptical of the coffee chain, given that it’s set and missed waste reduction goals in the past — including one pledge to make 100 percent of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015. The company also set a goal to serve 25 percent of its beverages in reusable cups by 2015, but as Fast Company reports, later lowered the bar to 5 percent and then failed to even come close to meeting that benchmark.
It seems counterintuitive that Starbucks is clumsy in its adoption of more sustainable practices, given its vast access to capital for research and development — not to mention its reputation as a corporate do-gooder (the brand leads efforts when it comes to improving working conditions for its employees). But creating a sustainable disposable cup is much harder than most people think.
What’s Starbucks’ current cup situation, and why is it so wasteful?
The current Starbucks paper cups are coated with a thin lining to prevent leaks, making them more challenging to recycle because the plastic isn’t easily separated from the paper. As a result, not every city has the proper infrastructure in place to process the cups (New York, Seattle, and Washington, DC are among the cities that do), and many end up a landfill. The issue is compounded by the fact that Starbucks leases space for many of its retail locations, where landlords determine what types of waste collection and recycling is provided to tenants, according to the company website.
For a company like Starbucks, which employs consistent products and procedures at stores around the world, it’s far easier (and cheaper) to send cups to a landfill than to navigate the network of infrastructure available for composting and recycling.
“Not every commercial composter can or will take the same items,” says Karen Dawson, a representative for Washington-based commercial composting company Cedar Grove. She notes that facilities serving cities around the country have widely different processes. “What’s compostable at our facility, which uses Gore covers and is quick and hot, is different than what might be available at a open wind row facility in the Midwest.”
Couldn’t Starbucks just switch to a totally compostable cup then?
It’s not that simple. “There are a lot of products on the market that are marketed as green, biodegradable, or compostable that are actually not,” Dawson says. Many so-called biodegradable and compostable products, she says, end up in Cedar Grove’s facility, where they fail to decompose completely and contaminate the compost in the same way as plastic or glass. (Cedar Grove works closely with organizations that help advocate for and certify compostable products such as Compost Manufacturing Alliance and the Biodegradable Products Institute. Cedar Grove has also developed its own list of acceptable items.)
Recyclable and compostable packaging, in other words, is only a beneficial if it ultimately lands in the proper waste facility. That means simply throwing a compostable cup in a backyard compost pile won’t work, Dawson says. “It doesn’t get hot enough to process those materials.” The same goes for a landfill, where garbage decomposes through an anaerobic process producing methane — a greenhouse gas — as opposed to the aerobic process employed through composting. Likewise, a compostable cup made from bio materials will be treated as a contaminant if disposed of at a recycling facility.
The failure to create a fully compostable and recyclable cup is only part of the problem.
Even if Starbucks were to introduce the perfect recyclable or compostable cup, another hurdle would be ensuring customers actually dispose of it appropriately. Systems expert Peter Senge, an MIT professor who consulted on the Starbucks’ cup conundrum, spoke about this issue during a presentation in 2010.
During that conference for the organization Sustainable Brands, Senge described the then-recently popularized varieties of compostable cups as “happy cups” because they make people feel good while using them, even though the cups are unlikely to ever end up in an actual composting facility — nullifying any meaningful environmental benefit.
Thus, the single-use cup’s evolution to a more sustainable model becomes far more than an issue of design and innovation. “It’s not about getting the perfect cup,” Senge says. “It’s about getting a whole lot of people working together in a way they really don’t work together.” That means the onus is not only on Starbucks but also on consumers.
Capital and cultural cache, on paper, seem like enough to help Starbucks overcome these challenges and more easily introduce solutions to its waste problem. But the company claims that its size and the nature of its stores, in fact, makes it more difficult to implement these sorts of changes.
“The current approach is a patchwork of varying regulations from city to city, and that makes it difficult for customers to know where and when to recycle or compost their cup,” Changi says. To help address the uneven infrastructure and regulations, Starbucks says it’s working with local municipalities and the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute to “advocate for model legislation and wider acceptance of consistent recycling programs nationwide.”
What have Starbucks’ efforts been so far, and where will it go from here?
On the retail side, the company offers a wide selection of reusable cups and mugs: In an effort to encourage customers to use reusable mugs, it’s currently implementing a cup charge on a three-month trial basis at some London stores (proceeds from the charge are being donate to environmental charity Hubbub).
The company also eagerly notes that it introduced a paper cup manufactured from 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber back in 2006; it was the first prototype of its kind to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to Hannah Changi, a Starbucks spokesperson. Last year, Starbucks introduced a “sippable lid” for its nitro cold brew that was branded as a better way to taste the drink, but also allowed customers to skip the green plastic straw. The coffee chain is also currently experimenting with a bio-liner, made partially from plant-based materials, for its paper cups. It’s currently in its 13th round of internal testing; however, it’s still months away from reaching stores.
In future designs, Starbucks intends to double the recycled materials in its hot cup and investigate alternative materials for cold cups, according to the company’s 2016 Global Social Impact Report. It also plans to double the number of stores and cities with access to cup recycling, and incentivize customers to choose a reusable cup over a disposable option.
However, the competition to develop a compostable and recyclable cup that “meets safety requirements and quality standards” is perhaps its most ambitious effort yet. “The fact is that creating a plant-based cup that is both environmentally sustainable and commercially viable is no easy task, but we believe a solution is out there,” Changi says.
For her part, Dawson is optimistic that Starbucks will find a solution to its waste problem, noting that Seattle-area stadiums such as Safeco Field and Centurylink Field have managed to implement composting programs with encouraging results. “I think there’s as much room for inspiration as frustration,” she says.
Correction: This story has been amended to show that 1 percent of 600 billion cups wasted each year is 6 billion, not 60 million. Eater regrets the error.
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