Seattle — For the third time in a decade, Starbucks last week made a major commitment to redesigning paper coffee cups so they can be more widely recycled and composted, while emphasizing that the problem is bigger than any one company.
As environmental groups prepared to deliver petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people pressuring the Seattle-based coffee giant on the issue, it announced a series of internal and external steps including $10 million for a three-year program to back entrepreneurs working on the problem.
Todd Paglia, executive director of environmental group Stand.earth, which wants to see Starbucks lead the industry toward a universally recyclable paper cup and reduce deforestation in the process, was happy to see the company’s financial commitment, but said he’d withhold judgment until more details were revealed. “We just have to be cognizant that this is their third commitment,” Paglia said, referring to a 2008 pledge made by Starbucks to make all of its cups recyclable by 2015.
In its 2016 social-impact report, the company revamped its goals, aiming to double the amount of recycled material in its hot cup — currently 10 percent, the same level it’s been since Starbucks gained regulatory approval for it in 2006 — and to double the number of stores and communities where cups could be recycled by 2022.
“This looks different,” Paglia said, noting the company’s funding commitment. In a statement, Starbucks Vice President Colleen Chapman acknowledged that “no one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date; it’s just not moving fast enough.”
Starbucks is joining with Closed Loop Partners, a fund backed by many large consumer-goods companies, to begin the NextGen Cup Challenge, aiming “to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition,” Chapman said. The company pledged to share solutions and hopes to attract participation from entrepreneurs and other players in the paper-cup industry to the effort.
Starbucks’ past emphasis on the broader recycling system underscores the challenge it and other coffee purveyors and food-service companies face in handling billions of paper cups each year. Recycling laws and infrastructure vary considerably from market to market, if they exist at all, complicating any effort to make a single cup that can be recycled anywhere.
“They put an enormous amount of effort into trying to talk the world into changing billions of dollars of recycling infrastructure to accept the cup as it was, and that failed, thank God,” Paglia said.
While Starbucks will continue to advocate for consistent municipal recycling regulations in more markets as part of its new push, the company is returning its focus to changing the cup — smooth, white paper formed into a reliable, lightweight, watertight, thermally stable vessel adorned with the company’s iconic green siren. It is lined with a thin coating of plastic to ensure its integrity when filled with hot liquid, and topped with a polypropylene plastic lid.
In communities where such cups are accepted for recycling, they are often lumped in with other plastic-coated paper products such as ice-cream cartons. That’s how it is in Seattle, said Hans Van Dusen of Seattle Public Utilities. Those items are baled with other mixed paper and shipped to paper pulpers, often in Asia — though that may be starting to change.
“Making materials more easily recyclable is going to be key in the next five to 10 years as we are forced to deal with our own waste because China won’t take it anymore,” Paglia said, adding that Starbucks’ new cups push “is in step with that.” The challenge is the plastic liner — how to separate it cost-effectively from the valuable paper, and what to do with it.
As part of its latest effort, Starbucks is experimenting with new materials for the cup liner, including some derived partially from plants such as corn. In a research and development lab at the company’s Seattle headquarters, packaging experts have run a dozen tests in the last year. Another is under way now, evaluating the performance and environmental impact of the liner.
A bio-based liner could make the cup acceptable at municipal and industrial composting facilities, though fewer than half of the 148 curbside residential food-waste collection programs surveyed by composting-industry magazine BioCycle last year accept compostable plastic products. It’s not clear whether a bio-based liner would meet compostable criteria, which vary from one facility to another.
While composting is a better endpoint than the landfill, it’s not the outcome that forestry-focused environmentalists like Paglia are looking for. Starbucks cups yield high-quality fiber that can be reused several times over to make new cups without cutting down more trees — but not if they’re composted into dirt. Moreover, said Paglia, recycling is much more broadly available than composting in most of North America.
The preferred option is to reduce the number of disposable cups in the first place. Starbucks has long provided small financial incentives to customers who bring their own cups. It recently began a trial charging 7 cents extra for paper cups in some of its London stores. In January, the British Parliament proposed a tax of 34 cents per single-use cup.