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 throwaway 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.
Feeling the pressure, the Seattle-based chain promised $10 million last March to a competition with the goal of developing a better single-use coffee cup — one with the capabilities to be composted or recycled. For the competition, Starbucks partnered with Closed Loop Partners and its Center for the Circular Economy, a private investment group focused on sustainable consumer goods and technology (McDonald’s, Yum! Brands, Wendy’s, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also supporting the effort).
The 12 winning designs were announced in February, and the coffee chain announced at a shareholders meeting earlier this week that recyclable and compostable cups will be selected from the winning designs to be tested in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver and London. Likewise, sippy cup-style lightweight, recyclable strawless lids for cold and hot beverages are expected to roll out this summer at Starbucks cafes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and Toronto; a wider rollout will follow in the U.S. and Canada in early 2020.
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.
Why are Starbucks’ “regular” cups 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. 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 an open windrow facility in the Midwest.”
Why couldn’t Starbucks just switch to a totally compostable cup back 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.
Systems expert Peter Senge, an MIT professor who consulted on the Starbucks’ cup conundrum, argued during a presentation in 2010 that popular varieties of compostable cups are “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. “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.
Starbucks has said it’s working to address the patchwork of of regulations in different cities by advocating “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?
Starbucks’ new compostable cups feature a biodegradable liner (that necessary coating for preventing leaks) that is fully compostable in commercial composting facilities. 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, in 2018 the company implemented a cup charge on a three-month trial basis at some London stores (proceeds from the charge were donated 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. In 2017, 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. As previously mentioned, those lid are being rolled out at U.S. and Canadian cafes for all beverages (with the exception of blended drinks like Frappuccinos) beginning with limited markets this year. Starbucks says those lids use “9 percent less plastic than the current lid and straw.”
The company is also testing alternative material straws for blended beverages and looking into applying some of the winning NextGen designs to that effort. Starbucks notes that plastic straws, a necessity for some people with limited mobility, will still be available to customers who need or request them.
Starbucks laid out goals in its 2016 Global Social Impact Report to double the recycled materials in its hot cup and investigate alternative materials for cold cups by 2022. 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.
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.
Update: March 20, 2019: This story was originally published on March 28, 2018. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest information.