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  • Samantha Tassillo

Eliminating Disposable Cups by 2025: Will Starbucks Keep Its Green Promise?

After a long pause because of COVID-19 hygienic concerns, Starbucks is planning to again implement bring-your-own-mug policies in stores across the country, as revealed in a press release on March 15th. Their goal is to “create a cultural movement towards reusables” by 2025 as a part of their sustainability initiatives. Many news articles have taken this to mean that Starbucks will be “eliminating single-use cups” by that date. What the press release actually says is that “Starbucks is shifting away from single-use plastics” (italics mine). The authors include this disclaimer at the end: “Actual future results and trends may differ materially depending on a variety of factors.” From a business standpoint, this ambiguous language is perfectly reasonable. Companies need to be legally covered in the event of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic or sudden economic downturns that hinder their ability to pay employees and funnel money into a new project. Don’t get me wrong—I do believe that this initiative is well-intentioned and that Starbucks wants to follow through with it. But I also understand that businesses make money by gaining support from social groups with promises like this. They acquire more business because of the media attention—and then the initiative slowly fades into the background, since they didn’t really need to follow through to gain a following. It’s important to appreciate these efforts while taking every promise with a grain of salt.

I don’t mean to discount the steps that Starbucks has already taken to implement reusables. There are a few different models for the way that they propose to discourage single-use cups, generated from test they’ve run in stores across the globe. The March 15th press release says that Starbucks hopes to promote “the default sit-and-stay experience,” providing reusable mugs in store so that customers will stay at Starbucks while they drink. For those who want their drinks to go, Starbucks stores are considering increasing the discount for bringing a personal cup from 10 cents to 50 cents or having washing stations for personal cups. Another model, tested in Seattle, is for customers to participate in “Borrow-a-Cup” initiatives if they do not have their own mug. Starbucks drinkers would return their cup to a Starbucks kiosk or store to be washed. In some stores in Japan, Singapore, and London, customers put down a $1 deposit to take a cup with them. When they return it to Starbucks to be washed by the third-party company, they receive their money back.

With the addition of Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Kobori in 2020, Starbucks has affirmed their commitment to becoming a “resource-positive” company, meaning that they give more than they take from the environment. Since Kobori’s implementation, Starbucks has been a part of initiatives like partnering with Volvo to build electric charging stations from Seattle to the Colorado Rockies and using ethically-sourced coffee. Starbucks pledges to reduce waste by 50% by 2030, and an enormous part of that waste is the single-use cups that they give out every day across the country and the world. These are ambitious initiatives, and Kobori seems to be leading the company in the right direction.

But Starbucks’ environmental history has not been entirely without fault, and even as they invest in renewables and try to reduce waste, it is important not to forget that they are a company, driven and derided by profit. Many corporations’ environmental activities turn out to be nothing more than “greenwashing,” or performative acts that only appear at face value as eco-friendly initiatives. During the furious 2018 push to use metal straws instead of plastic ones, Starbucks was one of the first companies to publicly eliminate plastic straws at its stores worldwide. This was celebrated by environmental advocates everywhere. In replacing the straws, though, Starbucks’ new “nitro lids” used more plastic by weight than the previous straw-and-lid combo did before—an increase of between .32 and .88 grams of plastic per drink, depending on the size. It is the weight of the plastic by mass that matters, Christian Britschgi argues, because plastic can be broken down into microplastics in the ocean. The more of it there is, the higher those “giant ocean garbage patches” go. A journalist from the Guardian reported that Starbucks did not deny the increase in plastic, instead emphasizing how the new lids are made of recyclable polypropylene (in contrast to their non-recyclable straws). What matters, then, is how much these cups will actually be recycled—especially as consumers take them on the go, far away from the bins nicely placed in Starbucks locations. Without another initiative to increase recycling in local cities or encourage consumers to bring their cups back, it seems like the straw ban was just a marketing trick. Starbucks fed off the buzz around the country to generate more revenue by implementing an initiative that might lead to even more plastic in the world—without letting their consumers know.

Even though the lids may be recyclable, the cups still are not, despite Starbucks’ hints towards it. In fact, dating back to 2008, Starbucks has been promising recyclable or compostable cups. The initiative seemed particularly real in 2019, when Starbucks released the results of the NextGen Cup Challenge on their website, detailing the 12 winners who had designed alternative visions for compostable or recyclable cups. This new proposed cup ditches the traditional polyethylene liner inside, opting instead for a compostable liner made of bioplastic: BioPBS™. There were some trials with these cups in 2020, but Starbucks has not implemented them worldwide, even though they generated plenty of publicity in their press releases from them.

The tricky part is that being compostable does not mean that the cup will be composted. These cups must be disposed of in a “certified compostable facility” with other organic materials to actually decompose. If put into a landfill, it would likely remain there, as waste, sitting on top of many other “recyclable” materials that were placed into the trash. With the vast majority of Starbucks customers taking their coffee to go, it is far from a guarantee that consumers would drive back to the original Starbucks to dispose of their cup in the special Starbucks compost collection bins that they would have to implement. Maybe that’s why Starbucks ultimately dropped the initiative. But instead of giving up on it completely, being transparent about the waste that they generate and the consumer’s part in this could have helped companies and customers work together.

Starbucks is tasked with creating a structure that makes it the easier option (or the only option) for people to interact with the company in an eco-friendly way. I applaud them for the return of personal mug orders and the new borrow-a-cup programs, pushing reusables over recyclable or compostable cups. For the most part, this is a company that has learned from its own mistakes. But I think it’s important to closely track whether consumers do return the cups they’ve borrowed—especially customers who only pay the occasional visit to Starbucks. A one-dollar deposit is not at all a large incentive to return the cup. Starbucks must walk a delicate line between not turning away customers who have forgotten their personal tumblers with expensive deposit fees and ensuring that these customers are motivated enough to actually return the cups they’ve borrowed. Still, I worry that people may keep these nearly-free cups—or worse, throw them out, even when they may contain more plastic by weight than the original single-use ones, since they need to be more durable. And I worry that Starbucks wouldn’t say a word about it if it failed.

This initiative shows a real level of sacrifice on their part, since this push could lose them customers if the deposit fees run too high. But technology is not the only part of the climate movement. Local recycling movements matter, as well as changing consumer culture and increasing company transparency. Corporations will make mistakes, and so will we. Going forward, it is our responsibility to hold companies and ourselves responsible: to ensure that we give them our business and our attention based on what they’ve done, not on what they promise to do.

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