Can Starbucks Find a Way to Recycle 4 Billion Cups?

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Starbucks served about 26 million beverages in reusable cups and mugs in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in 2009, keeping nearly 1.2 million pounds of paper from ending up in landfills. Photo: Flickr/michaelgoodin

Serving beverages in an estimated 3 billion paper cups each year (not to mention an additional 1 billion plastic cups), the coffee giant has come under intense scrutiny for using cups that are largely non-recyclable.

Paper they may be, but the thin plastic coating used to make the cups impermeable keeps them from being recyclable in most cities.

Starbucks hosted its second annual Cup Summit coinciding with Earth Day last week, bringing together municipalities, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, nonprofit organizations and academic experts to drive the development of solutions to make single-use paper and plastic cups more broadly recyclable.

The two-day symposium was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, a school which has played an important role in Starbucks’ research and approach to the recycling issue.

“This is a complex problem that will not be solved overnight, however initiatives like Starbucks’ Cup Summit are moving the dialogue in the right direction,” sais Peter Senge, senior lecturer at MIT and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL).

Starbucks initially engaged MIT and SoL in 2008 to explore systems thinking, a problem-solving approach that analyzes how various segment structures are interconnected. In the case of Starbucks, the team looked at how cup manufacturers, recyclers, municipalities and other stakeholders are all connected, revealing a fundamental need to improve recycling infrastructure while continuing to explore materials and design.

Though the cup summit was closed to the general public, a live chat with Senge and Jim Hanna, director of Environmental Impact for Starbucks, was hosted from the event. Questions submitted via Twitter were answered live for about 30 minutes, with most questions relating directly to recycling.

A common response made by Hanna dealt with the term “recyclable,” which he consistently admitted his disdain for.

“We define a recyclable cup not by what the cup is made out of but by our customers actually having access to recycling services,” said Hannah in response to how Starbucks can make a fully recyclable cup.

For example, Starbucks’ paper cups are recyclable in San Francisco because the city is equipped to handle the material, whereas in another city, the cup must be diverted to the trash. For this reason, Hanna indicated Starbucks would not call their cups recyclable or compostable  until 75 percent of their customers have access to recycling them.

Starbucks has set of goal of making 100 percent of its cups recyclable by 2015, leading to a bit of a conundrum on just what that will look like.

Could Starbucks do more in their recycling efforts? Probably. But let’s not forget the role of consumers in the caffeine-addicted world of beverages.

Starbucks served about 26 million beverages in reusable cups and mugs in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in 2009, keeping nearly 1.2 million pounds of paper from ending up in landfills.

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