Starbucks Cup Recycling: What’s the Holdup?

Why are 4 billion coffee cups thrown away each year? Alison Lara talks with Starbucks’ champions and critics to find out what’s holding up the recycling process.

The long wait: Starbucks promises that 100 percent of its cups will be recyclable by 2015. (Press Photo)

Glass bottles and aluminum cans are a gimme when it comes to recycling thanks to a combination of state container deposit laws, municipal curbside programs and a robust market for the recycled material – so why not paper cups?

That’s the dilemma coffee giant Starbucks is tackling in earnest, although far too slowly for its critics and many customers who see the iconic cups as the company’s top environmental concern. Starbucks, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this spring, has pledged to make 100 percent of its cups recyclable by 2015.

Read: Can Starbucks Find a Ways to Recycle 4 Billion Cups?

But the recycling holdup isn’t a question of the company dragging its heels, Starbucks is at pains to explain. The ubiquitous green and white hot beverage cup, made with 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, is itself technically recyclable and compostable right now. The issue is infrastructure.

“We define recyclability or compostibility based on access and not on materiality,” says Jim Hanna, the company’s director of environmental impact. “That means we’re not going to call our cups recyclable until we know our customers actually have access to recycling”

Indeed with a few exceptions (Seattle, Toronto and San Francisco for now), the company does not offer recycling for the soiled, plastic-lined paper cups in its store because most communities don’t recycle them. At this point there’s little market for the product and, in turn, little incentive to create the facilities to recycle it.

The upshot is that Stabucks’s expanded definition of producer responsibility requires participation from city governments, recycling facilities, paper mills and even the company’s competitors. This long road to a comprehensive solution so far has included two Cup Summits with various stakeholders; market testing to close the loop by turning cups back into cups and cups into napkins; and meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Read: What is a Producer’s Responsibility?

“Commercial recycling is 100 percent reliant on the local market,” Hanna says, noting that of the 4 billion paper cups they use annually, 80 percent leave the store and go out into the community. “If we can work with local governments to make sure that cups are included as part of local recycling ordinances, that prompts the creation of the local market where one may not exist.”

But industry observers are hesitant.

Starbucks’s effort is “groundbreaking,” but there’s a long way to go, says Conrad MacKerron, senior program director at As You Sow, a corporate and social accountability watchdog.

“Our concerns focus on how they’re going to implement it and meet the goals,” MacKerron says. “It’s going to be a lot of work in an area in which there’s no precedent…you’ve got hundreds of communities far from a paper mill and that’s a challenge.”

As You Sow is also campaigning for Starbucks to make a broader pledge to recycling its cans and bottles as the company expands in the grocery market. At the last two shareholder meeting, the nonprofit group presented a shareholder resolution asking for a comprehensive recycling strategy.

And in the meantime, even while paper cups represent a fraction of the the company’s overall environmental footprint, the issue may potentially tarnish Starbucks’s brand, others say.

Read: Recycling Starbucks Iced Coffee Cups

“To the outsider, it just looks like Starbucks is doing nothing at all,” says a business consultant who asked to remain anonymous. “They could develop an interim solution for all their stores or at minimum do a better job of explaining the situation to consumers.”

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  1. I guess I don’t really get it. “That means we’re not going to call our cups recyclable until we know our customers actually have access to recycling”. Is Starbucks saying that because they don’t have 100% confidence that all of their customers will have access to recycling they are not going to state that the cups are in fact recyclable? That seems very silly to me. If the cup is in fact recyclable state such and let all of the customers who have access to recycling do it!

  2. I think that Starbucks should pony up the cash to help create recycling facilities for their cups since they are the ones responsible for putting them out into the world…I think they make enough money to handle that!

  3. I get it on the cup problem. Starbucks gives us a 10 cent discount on each cup of tea or coffee because we bring our own reusable mugs. But they don’t promote that fact like they could.

    I also have concern about all areas of waste: office paper, heating and cooling of all locations including corporate offices (Are they buying “green” energy?), what types of cleaning products are being used, do they purchase recycled paper for all uses including toilet paper….the list can go on. Customers can exert pressure for responsible choices in these areas as well.

  4. In response to the first comment, their cups aren’t recyclable in most of America since they are mixed materials – a paper cup with a plastic liner. This is the same reason why milk cartons aren’t accepted for recycling in most areas – most recycling facilities aren’t capable of separating the plastic lining from the paper cup or carton for recycling. So if they put “recyclable” on their cups, it’s in fact not true in most locations.

  5. Two questions for Starbucks–

    1. With all their success, wouldn’t it be possible for them to spearhead or financially support the building of composting facilities in major cities across the country? Perhaps, 25 cities with the most sales? They could charge other retailers with similar cups & have collection trucks etc. I’m sure customers could even get a 5 cent charge per paper cup.

    2. What will it take for Starbucks to serve triple-certified coffee??? (Organic, fair trade & shade-grown– to ensure rainforests aren’t cut to grow sun-loving varieties) and They can have such an impact in bettering the world if they would just walk the walk and support only coffee that’s socially & environmentally responsibly grown.

  6. I think until Starbucks has a better solution for their cup recycling issues, they should give customers incentives to bring in their own mugs. Starbucks should make some sort of punch-card that says: “Buy 9 products with a reusable mug, get the 10th free.”

  7. Actually, I applaud Starbucks for not labeling their cups recyclable when it is not the norm. I recently bought a ream of paper from Staples. The outer, plastic, wrapper was labeled recyclable with a #5 chasing arrows symbol. I KNOW that I cannot recycle this curbside or at my grocery store. So I contacted Staples to find out where I could take this – maybe they have bins at their stores. Nope! They label it this way so that consumers with the ability will know they can recycle it. Well, you know what probably happens? People who don’t understand the recycling rules in their muni, throw this in their curbside bin and probably mess up the sorting (if they are single stream).

    Maybe Starbucks should make it known that this cup *could* be recyclable so people will check first???? I’m going to double check.

  8. I’m with Denise. If I forget my permanent mug I park my car and walk back up the hill to retrieve it. (This has made remembering a little easier:) I’ve been perplexed by this Starbucks issue for years…you would think at the very least they would offer in-store/curb in front of store recycling bins for THEIR cups. For their cups to be officially called ‘recyclable’ would mean for every in-store (as opposed to-go) customer to have to bring their empty used cup with them when they leave Starbucks to either bring it home or find a recycling bin where they may leave it. Seriously, what’s the hold up?

  9. Great article. Very thought provoking. I’m glad to see this great company taking an environmental stand. They’re Becoming Better.

  10. I know a little bit about the recycling business and I can honestly say that it will be an immense challenge for Starbucks to pull off implementing a program to recycle their plastic-lined paper cups. First off all, the designated recycle receptacles (bins) will get littered with trash and liquids.. They would have to be collected daily (at least); the material would have to be transported to and sorted (plastic, paper, garbage, and liquids) at an off-site recycling center; and the garbage and liquids would have be properly disposed of. The labor involved would be extremely costly, and unless the demand for -and the value of- the recycled paper significantly rises, it doesn’t make economical sense for Starbucks to invest in a program like this –strictly from a monetary point of view. It does add value to their customer experience, but not their bottom line .

    I agree with others: Promoting a discount customers for using their reusable cups; educating the customer-base on the importance of reducing waste by using reusable cups through advertisement and emails campaigns; and by offering a frequent reusable cup user program sounds like the best ways for this vast corporation to reduce its waste stream. Oh yeah, increase the PC Recycled content to 80%+.

  11. They need to reduse their use of plastic and paper cups and really push the reusable cup! Starbucks listen up! what if you started pushing the reusables more and more to the point that you no longer had paper or plastic cups? what an impact your company could make on your carbon footprint! start the campaign by offering steep discounts on the reusable cups then free coffee during the hours of x and z. then link to our rewards card, every 10 brewed coffee is free IF you use your reusable cup! If you got at LEAST every rewards member to use a reusable cup you could greatly reduce waste by HUGE amounts! Plus I would love some free coffee! :-)

  12. Just ban the f…..g plastic cups. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been done already. I see them everywhere, even in a national park in Costa Rica. It blights our environment.

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