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
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 3 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 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!