Is Starbucks Doing Enough to Recycle Its Cups?

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As you’re rushing out the door in the morning, hardly awake, how do you perk up? Easy — grab a caffeinated pick-me-up from the nearest Starbucks. Nothing hits the spot quite like a hot latte on a sleepy workday morning.

Alas, you forgot your reusable mug. At least you can ease your eco-conscious mind by recycling your cup, right? That answer, it turns out, is a complicated one.

First, What Is a “Recyclable” Item?

Simply put, the word recyclable refers to something that can be converted into reusable material. Recycling cuts down on resource extraction — no need for new materials if we can use the old stuff — and keeps harmful substances out of our landfills and environment. It’s essential for a sustainable planet.

It may seem like a simple endeavor, but there are many pieces that must come together to make recycling happen. You need local government to put recycling policies into action, necessary transportation infrastructure, access to capable recycling facilities and community participation. If one of these pieces is missing, recycling simply can’t happen.

Starbucks and Recycling

Starbucks, one of the largest and most successful coffee chains in the world, has more than 24,000 locations in 70-plus countries. These stores belong to communities with differing priorities and resources, making it difficult for each one to piece together a successful recycling system.

So, to answer your question, you can recycle your coffee cup sometimes — it depends on where you are. Some cities, like Starbucks’ home of Seattle, readily recycle the cups. Many others lack the infrastructure needed to do so. A majority of Starbucks’ cups end up tossed in the trash, destined for a landfill.

The problem most cities face is a lack of access to capable recycling facilities. Stand.earth, an organization campaigning for Starbucks to create a recyclable cup, notes recycling issues with the current cups.

“In order to be able to hold liquids safely, Starbucks paper cups are lined with a thin layer of 100% oil-based polyethylene plastic made by companies like Dow and Chevron. This plastic lining makes the cups impossible to recycle because it clogs most recycled paper mills’ machinery…

Because of the polyethylene plastic coating, much of this material ends up as a byproduct of the paper-making process and is ultimately sent to the landfill anyway. This is particularly wasteful since paper cups are made from a very high-quality paper and, if recycled, could be reused multiple times.”

Plus, because the popular coffee chain is not using recycled materials for their cups, they have to constantly harvest the resources necessary to produce new ones. Starbucks uses 8,000 cups a minute. Over 1 million trees are cut down every year to meet their demands.

Building a Better Cup

Starbucks counts sustainability as one of its values, so why not make a cup that can be recycled everywhere? Stand.earth has been asking them that same question since 2015, when the company promised to release a 100 percent recyclable cup.

Stand.earth is an organization dedicated to holding companies accountable for their environmental impact and enacting sustainable change. In 2008, Starbucks recognized that their cups were a sustainability issue and promised to create a recyclable cup by 2015. Their promise fell short. In 2016, Stand.earth released a report detailing Starbucks’ cup controversy.

Stand.earth has three demands for Starbucks:

  1. Create a 100 percent recyclable cup
    We want a cup that can be recycled universally.
  2. Go tree-free
    Starbucks should make their cups from renewables instead of freshly cut trees.
  3. Reuse
    Perhaps the most environmentally sound solution to the Starbucks cup problem is to stop using single-use cups in the first place. Stand.earth wants Starbucks to get serious about incentivizing the use of reusable mugs by customers.

Starbucks, one of the wealthiest companies in the world, is adept at solving complicated problems. If anyone can meet these demands, it’s them. The environment is counting on it.

What You Can Do

  • Recycle! Talk to your municipal government or recycling center to find out if you can recycle coffee cups in your city. Start online — most recycling centers publish a list of recyclable items on their website.
  • If you can’t recycle paper cups in your area, you can at least recycle some of their accessories. Check out our recycling guide to learn more.
  • Sign Stand.earth’s letter to Starbucks’ CEO urging the company to up their eco-friendliness and create a recyclable cup.
  • Bring a reusable mug. Starbucks even offers discounts to those who get their cup of joe in a reusable rather than a disposable cup. You can save the planet and money at the same time — talk about a win-win.
  • Share Stand.earth’s message with your friends. You are sure to get their attention with the hilarious video they made.

Feature photo courtesy of Stand.earth

Read More:
What NOT to Put in the Bin
Starbucks Hopes $1 Reusable Tumbler Will Cut Cup Waste
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Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Lauren Murphy