For plenty of you, kicking back at a Starbucks means you’re likely slurping that steaming venti Caramel Macchiato out of the company’s iconic white cup. But if you’re green at heart (and we know you are), then tossing that paper cup in the trash after its very short, single-use life probably made you cringe a bit.
It turns out that of the four billion cups of coffee Starbucks sells globally, only a very small percentage of the packaging ends up recycled. But according to the company’s new annual global responsibility report, change is on the way, with Starbucks pledging to have 100 percent of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015.
Why the delay? It turns out those paper cups aren’t all that easy to recycle. While the cup is initially made from recycled materials, it’s also constructed with a polymer-based liner to prevent hot liquid from leaking. Unfortunately, most recycling companies aren’t equipped to separate that lining from the paper. Nor is there a robust resale market for it, as there is with aluminum or cardboard.
Additionally, recycling capabilities vary from city to city, and with 17,000 retail Starbucks locations, the challenge is formidable. (Fortunately, many communities are able to recycle the plastic cups used for cold beverages.)
To their credit, Starbucks has been working on this issue since 2008. In fact, they’ve held three Cup Summits (in 2009, 2010 and 2011) to address the issue with suppliers, manufacturers, recyclers, government representatives and more.
“When we started on the journey, we felt that the cup material was the key contributor to recyclability. But as we’ve learned more, we now believe the improvement of local recycling infrastructures and commercial markets for used paper and plastics will ultimately drive recyclability,” reads the statement on Starbuck’s website.
While Starbucks has been able to reclaim some of the paper cups used in its stores and successfully converted them into napkins, hurdles remain. One big one is remaining liquid in those tossed cups which makes it difficult for paper mills to process them. And nearly 80 percent of the beverage sold at Starbucks walk out the door with the customer.
According to The Boston Globe, more of those paper cups need to be recycled to reach a point where it becomes profitable.
“Starbucks paper cups represent less than 1 percent of the 500 billion paper cups produced a year,” writes reporter Taryn Luna. And if all of the paper cups Starbucks customers used in a year were recycled, it would create less than a week’s worth of paper from a mill.
But at least that’s an option, as is brining your own mug into a store, or asking for ceramic cups at any Starbucks with seating. Much of the coffee served at McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, comes in foam or polystyrene cups, but recent consumer pressure seems to be pushing change there too. This morning’s Chicago Tribune announced McDonald’s will be testing paper cups in 200 of its West Coast restaurants, while Dunkin’ Donuts is testing an in-store foam cup recycling program.
And the rest of the industry is also taking notice.
“One of the successes of the cup effort is that we got the Food Service Packaging Institute to take this project on as an industry-wide effort instead of just a Starbucks effort,” Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks tells TakePart. “They represent food service packaging, and they have the power to bring the entire industry together, and to bring the scale necessary for success.”
In a world of 500 billion paper cups, that’s hopeful news.