There’s Nothing Easier Than Picking on Starbucks.

There’s nothing easier than picking on Starbucks.

There’s nothing easier than picking on Starbucks.

There is nothing I crave more in the morning than a very strong cup of java juice. So much, in fact, I have the coffee lover’s dream machine at home. Every morning, it grinds the beans, filters the water and presses out a very large helping of espresso strength coffee covered in the milky coffee head that only accompanies good coffee.

So there I was, sipping away at my morning nectar, sucking deeply on the café mocha vapor device while reading the current topics on my favorite websites. There it was, smack bang, center page, a large cardboard cup with the now world famous logo, Starbucks plastered on it, once again being reviled by some anti-business anti- coffee moron with an axe to grind. But wait, this was different. This time I hate to say, they may just have something here; the topic … What are they doing with the 4 billion paper cups they sell every year? That’s right 4 billion, that’s a B … for billion.

Never one to simply take such a solid and staggeringly sized number or the problem that is bound to accompany it that lightly, I read on. To my absolute horror I read that they are not recycling them. What, you’ve got to be kidding right? Why I wondered, perhaps the problem is just too vast … the cost is too high. What to do? In a comment made by Starbucks in response to being questioned as to why they had failed to meet their illustrious 7-year goal of implementing recycling programs in all their stores, they say, “Recycling seems like a simple, straightforward initiative – but it’s actually quite challenging”. Sounds like double talk to me.

Starbucks claims the cost is too high; the recyclers can’t make it financially viable unless their paper cups that have a plastic liner to stop them leaking (the cause of the problem is removing it) are delivered in sufficient numbers. They can’t make it financially viable? FOUR BILLION, I’m going to say it again, FOUR BILLION, what does the number have to be to be considered “sufficient quantity”?
perhaps it’s not all Starbucks fault.

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  1. The whole problem I have with in-store cup recycling is this: as you noted, folks who order their coffee to-go aren’t very likely to bring them back. And why would Starbuck’s give sit-in customers disposable cups? Seems like a lot of the problem could be solved if they used mugs in-store. Unfortunately, not enough people are yet tuned in to bringing along their own reusable cups for to-go coffee. Hell, just last night I watched a mother at the grocery store ask her young child to bag groceries as she scanned them; he dutifully put each of the dozen or so items into their own individual plastic bags and delivered the whole heap to the shopping cart, and mom didn’t even bat an eye. It’s hard to combat this disposable metality, which baffles me. In the span of just a few decades, we went from not having disposable crap to just assuming it just HAS to be part fo daily life.

    1. Hello again…

      Yup, I’m so tired of hearing the same old blame everyone else game from everyone who wants the world to see how ECO they are. It really does start at home. I prefer to go to Market Street or Whole Foods, at least there they give me the option of paper vs. plastic.

      Its time we started taking some personal responsibility for our waste. Remember the good old days when the TV broke down and the “man” came an fixed it? Now we don’t even try, we just buy a new bigger and fancier one and move the other one to the garage and there it stays until we get around to chucking it out. I would have it fixed, but built in obsolescence and cheap retail consumer goods simply train us all to be fat and lazy, and its easier to blame someone else for our stupidity.

      Don’t even get me started on the soccer moms in their white SUV’s and the built in entitlement that accompanies them. I am truly a grumpy old man, and it takes nothing to get me ranting.


      1. I have seen them, and the problem is none wants to buy them. Perhaps if they made a Grande one without the green stick they would get more consumers to buy them.


        1. I meant they do exactly what what Mrs_Wudi suggested in her comment. They will serve customers in ceramic mugs they provide (for free) for any customer who is drinking it in the store. The customer doesn’t have to remember their own mug or pay extra. It is a plain, white, ceramic mug (no green) that the customer returns to the counter and it is washed and reused for more customers later. This is a separate thing than the $1 reusable they try to get take-out customers to remember to bring in.

          I think they could do a lot more to increase customers’ knowledge that they do this. They could also do a much better job at training all baristas to remember to ask customers if they are drinking in the store and be sure to always provide the ceramic mugs if they are. I have noticed baristas forget, unfortunately, especially when they are busy.

  2. Sorry Starbucks, I’m not buying it. What’s the saying about how if you put your mind to it anything can be done? Starbucks should be smarter than this from a purely profitable point of view. Businesses spend a gross amount of money on their waste hauling bills. If over 4 billion cups are thrown, they are making all of those garbage haulers that much richer. Something isn’t right about this. Being less wasteful is much more profitable. They should stop thinking just about the recycling aspect and think about how they can both reduce their waste first and implement recycling. And.. get the customers involved. They have crazy loyal customers, I am sure they could institute a plan to get the regulars to bring their reusable mugs at a better return rate. I work with large businesses all of the time doing this sort of thing and believe me, my clients are thanking me.

    1. Tara,

      Thanks for the comment. I do have an issue with “put your mind to anything and it can be done”. In this case you have to put millions of peoples minds to it.

      If you have a viable solution to this problem, I would love to hear it and I will run it as a full feature story. I have yet to find a way to get the average consumer to fall in line with anything without offering them something in return.

      You seem to feel its Starbucks fault that people wont buy their reusable mugs, wont recycle the cups or do anything themselves to help. (they have tried and the consumer would not engage) We work with organizations all the time that do what you state you do and convince business to work better and smarter (Quest Resource Management Group for example) This is not a corporate issue, its a consumer one. The coffee grounds is all on Starbucks, the cups, that’s all on the consumer and any comments made that point the finger at Starbucks is simply ill informed.

      Personally, I’m not buying your sales pitch, sorry. In the words of the wise, show me, don’t tell me.


      1. Hi Aaron,
        I like that you have spurred the conversation. It seems sometimes like forums fall on deaf ears.

        I want to first respond on the corporate vs consumer issue. I personally have been starting paper/glass/aluminum recycling, etc programs since I was in high school. That was over 20 years ago. I initiated our first paper recycling program when I was a senior back in 1992. We collected over 100,000 pounds of paper during the school year. It took some innovation to make sure we had the collection bins, the people to pick it up and most importantly, enough education so that the kids and teachers would get the right stuff in the bin. So, I absolutely understand how difficult it is to get people to change behaviors when they have been programmed to do one thing- hit the trash can.

        Throughout my career in marine science and environmental work I have always put responsibility on the consumer to take responsibility. I write on this topic frequently. However, it can’t solely fall on the consumer. Businesses are constantly in consumer’s ear to buy, buy, buy and consume as much as humanly possible. But this can’t be a one way street. If you are producing a product and the result is a disposable like paper or plastic, then it is the responsibility of the business to provide both the education (advertising) and the capacity (reusing or recycling) for a consumer to deal with their waste.

        According to the article, Starbucks is saying it is too expensive. There really isn’t much information to support what they are saying. What have they done or what isn’t working?

        My experience working with businesses is that many times it is an internally staffing problem, not necessarily a consumer problem. Let me give you an example- Hotel world. Multiple large properties that I worked with had in-room recycling programs. The consumers did what they were asked to do and left their recyclables on the counter and then the housekeeping staff promptly came in and threw them in the trash instead of keeping them separated for recycling. I watched this with my own eyes. Staff training is a huge key to success when launching programs. If they aren’t in the loop or helping promote it themselves, then when it comes down to numbers it looks like the program was a failure.

        Marketing & Advertising- If people don’t know what a business is doing, then they aren’t going to magically participate. I know of some large brands that don’t even promote the really cool things that they are doing when it comes to sustainability. That one stumps me.

        Starbucks for example- one of my colleagues wanted to meet up there last week. I got there a little early to see what initiatives they may have going. I didn’t see anything that mentioned about a reusable mug or if they offered a glass mug since we were sitting inside. The staff was kind and fast, but when I inquired about a reusable mug I kind of got the strange look. Maybe he was new. There isn’t anything promoting that they can do this or that. Of all of the blatant Starbucks advertising everywhere, I haven’t ever come across one that mentioned anything about recycling or even what they do with their coffee grounds. I know I have heard from others online that they had a program about giving away used grounds, but I have never heard that from Starbucks themselves.

        The issue about giving something in order to do something: That is a slippery slope sometimes. It is like promising a toddler that if they behave when you go out they will get a cookie every time. You are instilling bad habits. However, businesses can still use this tactic in order to gain more loyalty. I am not sure if Starbucks gives their reusable mug guests discounts or whatever..

        Ultimately it is all about balance. Businesses can learn where they can reduce first and foremost and then bring in reduction and recycling.

        I am not sure why you think that a large scale business like Starbucks can’t make it work and simply accept that it is too hard or too expensive. They have the man power and the skill to do it. The better question is to ask if they actually care to make it work.

        1. Tara,

          Thanks for the acknowledgement that here at Earth911 we do mean what we say when we say it. We want the feedback and respond to all of it.

          Everything you say makes perfect sense. It was never my intention to let Startbucks off the hook. I do want them to at least take responsibility for the things they can control, coffee grounds for example. The cups is a gray area and sometimes we need to fight the obviouse issues instead of getting “squirreled’ by the stuff they can have a reasonable argument for and diminish their responsibility. By keeping them on point (coffee grounds) without letting the conversation go to cups, they cant wiggle out of it.

          Thanks again. If you still write freelance, drop me a line.


  3. Assuming you brought all 4 billion cups to one paper mill to process, that amount would not last them a week. Hard to justify the expense for the machinery for 1 week worth of production.

    1. Hi Ron,

      Not sure of the one week thing, but the point is real enough. The real point of the article is to teach those shouting at the rain and bagging companies for something they have little control over to look at their efforts as well.

      Coffee grounds, I will be the first to snipe at Starbucks for, the cups, that’s really on the end user and they should take the very large log out of their eye, before they point at the splinter in others eyes.

      Thanks for commenting


    1. I don’t like to post other peoples links, but this one is the exception. Thanks Ron, I liked it and thanks.


  4. Hmm. It would seem the basis of a small biz about to go big, maybe. A company that hauls the trash from Starbucks, sorts it, and sells the raw materials to recyclers. Or paper mills. And plastics producers. (Lids, cups, straws) Trucks running biodiesel to make the rounds…is it financially viable? That would be pretty cool if so.

  5. You should also look into the actual goals and moves Starbucks is making and why they are running into issues. It is not really as simple as your source might have made it seem.

    The “double talk” you think you heard is really some issues with getting it done that are external to the company. For example, they are often tenants in a building, not the owners of a building. They do not always control waste collection and disposal restrictions on the buildings in which their stores are located. Trying to get landlords to have recycling for the building in which the stores are located is, as you would expect, met with varying success because each landlord’s considerations and commitment to environmental sustainability is different. So they did not get as far as they planned and set their goal to achieve as fast as they would have liked.

    Another issue is that state and local governments have varying restrictions on what can be recycled when and various waste companies have varying standards for what they will recycle and what they will landfill. The 4 billion cups are not all going to the same place. You’re talking about hundreds of local jurisdictions each with their own standards and a different waste management company in each of them. So whether the cup gets accepted and recycled in the end has yet another layer or two of decision makers beyond Starbucks and the customer and the landlord. It is actually “quite challenging.”

    And they aren’t just saying “Oh well, they won’t let us do it everywhere,” and giving up. They have moved ahead where they can to provide in-store recycling in the thousands of stores where they have already overcome the hurdles of landlords, local and state government, and waste management companies. Just because they did not reach their goal to get them recycled everywhere does not mean that none of their stores are recycling. And they haven’t just given up where they have run into issues, they are actually trying to get landlords, local governments, and waste management companies to work with them in order to get them the infrastructure and permission to get recycling going in those stores where they ran into hurdles.

    But that doesn’t make for a nice soundbite for our short-attention-span society where we stop listening or paying attention if the answer takes too long to explain or is too complicated. And the source you read could have easily found out all of this by simply reading all of the information Starbucks provides openly to anyone who cares to read it. They provide all of these details on their website.

    With the lining issue, they have worked to demonstrate their cups are recyclable and how to get that done with the waste management companies.

    Also they have a goal to get us to bring in our mugs. They give a 10¢ discount if one does and started a program of selling a reusable cup for $1 (whose cost is recouped after just 10 uses in-store) to try to work to get customers to help them reach their goal of 15% of customers bringing in reusable mugs before next year. They have not been as successful at getting us to do it as they have strived to do. Instead they are having problems getting above 2% of us doing it despite the discount and their attempt to further encourage it with the rollout of the cheaper mug with a cost that is recouped with use. It increased reusable mugs only a marginal amount. They are still striving to more than double the use of reusable mugs being brought in by next year, but they had serious problems getting to their 15% percent goal without us take-out customers bringing in the mugs.

    So, while it is “easy to pick on Starbucks,” the ease of doing so is mostly because the answers are not as simple and black-and-white as most consumers think about these things and people don’t research the information someone else gives in order to verify its veracity. Is Starbucks perfect? Of course not. Not by a long shot. Are they trying and doing much better than the author of your source indicated? Yes. There are not the full 4 billion cups going to dumpsters. Starbucks just hasn’t yet gotten to the place of every single store recycling liked they had planned.

    1. Hippichickinikki,

      You tell em. I agree, its too easy to bash them when at least half the problem is the consumer.

      Great post


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