Nearly a decade ago, in 2008, Starbucks announced an ambitious plan to make its cups recyclable by 2015. It recruited smart minds (including an MIT team) and conducted big tests in New York and other cities that it bragged would “lead the entire industry towards greater access to recycling.” Five years later, the plan got trashed, so to speak, and it’s never sat well with environmental activists. Many hoped Starbucks might surprise them this year by debuting ecofriendlier holiday cups, but the 2017 design, while extremely innocuous on the Christmas wars front, is not harmless to the environment, and that’s drawing a new round of complaints.
Yesterday, a group called Stand — probably best know for its ten-foot-tall Cup Monster that occasionally prowls around near Starbucks’s headquarters — launched a campaign arguing that the nine-year-long saga reflects a “disappointing lack of leadership.” People should ignore the “holiday marketing hype,” it urged, and instead spend their energy supporting a brand-new shareholder resolution that would require Starbucks to “up its game” on recycling.
The cup problem, in Stand’s telling, is as much with municipal waste services as it is with Starbucks. Starbucks is just an easy target, partly because it reneged on its recycling goal, and partly because it produces a ton of paper-cup waste each year. (Or, to be literal: 50,000 tons, assuming the 4 billion Starbucks cups that go into landfills annually average 11 grams apiece.) While Starbucks’s sleeves are 100 percent recyclable, experts interviewed for Stand’s new report say the cups themselves are “extremely difficult” to recycle because of the plastic coating on the inside. Even with new advancements in recycling, Stand says that only 18 of America’s 100 largest cities currently offer recycling for paper coffee cups. The vast majority of mills just cannot process the plastic, which ultimately ends up clogging their filters.
But solutions do exist in the industry. As it happens, fully recyclable cups have been available since at least 2014, the year a British inventor created one with a plastic lining that can be removed and disposed of separately. Also, Blue Bottle switched to cups that are entirely compostable that same year. But Starbucks argues that a “one-size-fits-all approach” is untenable for a company of its size, though it’s also recognized the bad optics at play there. (“From our standpoint, the cup is our No. 1 environmental liability,” a former director of environmental affairs once advised the company.)
Starbucks did switch years ago to cups made from 10 percent postconsumer recycled material, which is better than zero. The company also says that it’s “working to shrink our environmental footprint and meet the expectations of our customers” in other ways. One is that it now offers “reusable” cups for a buck that entitle customers to a ten-cent discount, and are in turn recyclable when they wear out. No timeline yet exists for truly recyclable paper cups, but Starbucks does point out that reusable mugs and tumblers are now “much more prominently displayed” near the registers in its latest café designs.