Starbucks coffee cups. They are everywhere. I’ve seen many people throw them away. I’ve seen some eco-experts put them in composting bins. And personally I have even tried to wash them and recycle them. Don’t try that at home.
So which is it? The final Jeopardy question is: what is the best thing to do with a Starbucks cup when the last drop of coffee is gone?
A) Compost it
B) Recycle it
C) Throw it away
D) None of the above – bring your own cup (BYOC)
D is of course the ultimate green answer! but this still leaves our conundrum.
My curiosity grew when I visited Tully’s Coffee recently and was hit over the head with their new 100% Compostable Green Cup. Ah ha. This was a clue. Why is Tully’s making such a big deal about this? It is fabulous of course, but it also insinuated that competing cups might be paper in non-green clothes.
So I went to the source - Starbucks - and asked the burning question. Are Starbucks paper cups recyclable or compostable?
Here is the answer, verbatim from Starbucks:
"Starbucks white paper cups, used for hot beverages, are made of paper fiber and the industry standard liner (low-density polyethylene plastic). The paper provides the rigidity for the cup, while the plastic layer keeps the paper layer intact by protecting it from the hot beverage. This plastic layer also makes the hot beverage cups unrecyclable in most paper recycling systems. We are continually evaluating alternatives to the current plastic coating, and are currently conducting life cycle assessments for bio-based plastics."
Wow, there you have it folks. It is the plastic cup liner that is the culprit and makes the current Starbucks paper cup neither compostable nor recyclable.
So the Answer to the question is C. Starbucks cups are not recyclable. You have to trash the Starbucks cup - throw it away - because it contains paper and plastic.
Starbucks cups contain 10% recycled paper which is an excellent start, but they are not recyclable or compostable because of the plastic liner. To use Bill McDonough's term, Starbucks hot cups are a monstrous hybrid of a biological item (paper) and a technical item (plastic). Note that this plastic liner might even contain BPA, a known endocrine hormone disrupter that mimics estrogen. Um, gentlemen?
Let’s hope that Starbucks will consider switching to a cup with a bio-liner like the new ecotainer hot cup. Starbucks goes through over 4 billion paper cups a year. Imagine the green bounty if all of that trash could be diverted and reused.
We can fight back via BYOC - bring your own cup or tumbler to Starbacks. Care not cups.
We can also fight back by ordering drinks "for here" and asking for them in the ceramic mugs they keep hidden behind the counter.
In the meantime, I still love a good Starbucks Chai Latte, and I'm trying hard to bring my own mug every time. Plus the 10 cents cup credit is almost as sweet as the vanilla syrup.
For more, please see Bring Your Own Cup.
Update May 2009: Thanks to comments and questions from you the community, Starbucks has finally decided to try to tackle its cup issue. We applaud Starbucks for convening a Cup Summit. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged that all of its iconic Starbucks paper cups would be recyclable by the year 2012. [Note that they missed the deadline.]
In the meantime, we ask Starbucks please to implement solutions that patrons can use right away. First, in regions where composting is available, switch to the ecotainer 100% compostable cup and put green bins in the stores. This solution is available now. Second, offer more for-here ceramic mugs in the cafes, actively encourage guests to order drinks in them and give them 10 cents for doing so. With a little thoughtfulness, we can have our coffee - or chai tea - and our planet too. Let's continue to let Starbucks know how we feel via their Facebook page and their Starbucks customer service site.
Update January 2013: Starbucks unveiled a $1 reusable plastic cup that is BPA-free and that gives you a 10 cent discount per order, thereby paying for itself after 10 drinks. It is a solid effort. Please try this cup, and let's show Starbucks that we care. This is a great green option for to-go orders.
Starbucks' new goal is to serve 5% of its beverages in personal tumblers by 2015. This goal was sadly significantly downgraded from their prior goal of 25% by 2015. I know that we can do better than this as a society. If everyone who ordered a for-here drink received a glass or ceramic mug, massive progress would be made.
Thank you for caring about this issue. You are making a difference. Onwards to a caffeine-fueled victory!
Update April 2016: I am thrilled that Stand.earth (formally ForestEthics) has launched the Better Cup campaign calling on Starbucks to remedy their cup-wasting and forest-trashing ways.
The Better Cup campaign asks Starbucks to:
1. Increase the recycled content of their paper cups beyond 10% and consider tree-free sources. To not to is simply and completely irresponsible at this point.
2. Serve 25% or more of their drinks in reusable mugs. All it would take would be a simple change in store operations. Ask all customers if they want their drinks to go or for here. Every customer who says "for here" gets a ceramic mug. Done.
3. Make sure that the paper cups that are used can be recycled or composted. Visit a Starbucks in San Francisco and look at the waste stream that is supposed to be divided into blue vs. green, and you will see one gigantic mess. Visit a Starbucks in Los Angeles, and you will see everything being thrown in the trash. All landfill. Is this the legacy that Starbucks wants? Customers are just trying to enjoy a cup of coffee, and they become unknowing planet-destroyers in the process.
It is 2016, and we have been writing about this situation for almost 10 years. It is time to make a change for the better. It will take a combined effort by the company and its customers. Let's make this happen! Please see the Better Cup campaign.
On Twitter: @sbbettercup and @standearth #bettercup