What Happened To The Recyclable Cup Starbucks Promised Us Back in 2015?

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By: Casha Doemland

Starbucks cups aren’t as recyclable as you think they are.

In fact, the paper cups aren’t recyclable at all due to a polyethylene lining that rejects their admission to the recycling plant. With nearly 4 billion cups of coffee sold per year by Starbucks alone, that’s an awful lot of cups going straight to a landfill.

Back in 2008, Starbucks made a goal to serve 25% of their beverages out of reusable cups by 2015. Yet, the goal switched in 2011 to serve 5% of beverages made in stores in personal tumblers by 2015 when they realized they had only increased the percentage of reusable cups by a mere 1.9%.  

What’s more, they had even promised to create a fully recyclable cup by 2015. And then nothing happened.

The environmentally-challenged company is trying to fix this. According to Starbucks’ 2016 Report, they’ve said “We aim to double the recycled content in the hot cup and explore alternative materials for cold cups. We remain committed to recycling and will work to double the number of stores and communities with access to cup recycling. We will promote and incent the use of ‘for here’ and reusable cups.” All of which is now promised to be completed by 2022.

It seemed like the company was indeed making strides toward this goal after they introduced Martin Myerscough’s Frugalpac Cup which features a removable thin plastic liner designed to separate itself from paper during the recycling process. Except, after the initial trial run in 2016, there's been nothing but radio silence.

Is the cup only great in theory? Is far too expensive for the company to produce? Is all the talk of sustainability just for show? Starbucks continues to make promises, yet fails to supply any information on the progress they’re making.

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In 2017, As You Sow, the nation's non-profit leader in shareholder advocacy, called Starbucks out for its single-use plastic cups, shortcomings with previous sustainability promises, and failure to phase out their signature green plastic straws. Seattle-based company, The Lonely Whale Foundation took matters into their own hands and launched Strawless in Seattle, which will ban single-use straws from the city starting July 2018. As a result, 300 Starbucks in Seattle must find an alternative straw.

Earlier this year, the UK tried to implement the latte levy, a tax on single-use cups, to reduce the number of disposable coffee cups throughout the nation. Unfortunately, the UK government rejected the idea last month, instead opting to have coffee shops themselves offer discounts to customers who bring along their reusable cups.

As of March 20, 2018, Starbucks has taken another ambitious approach and partnered up with Closed Loop Partners to develop a recyclable, compostable cup in hopes of cutting back on the 600 billion disposable cups doled out each year.

The first step, establishing the NextGen Cup Challenge. "Through this partnership, the Challenge will enable leading innovators and entrepreneurs with financial, technical and expert resources to fast-track global solutions, help get those solutions to the shelf, through the recovery system and back into the supply chain," shares Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners.

This year alone, Starbucks’ internal research and development team has run 13 trials for a new bio-linger made from plant-based materials. And while they’re also opening up 1,000 LEED stores and creating a 100% sustainable coffee, it’s that iconic cup which has proven to be their white whale. Essentially, Starbucks is fine with throwing money around while delivering empty promises via press release each year.  

Granted, there are challenges to creating a fully recyclable cup that not only meets the company’s safety requirements for hot beverages but can also be recycled or breakdown within a reasonable amount of time in a landfill. In that same press release announcing the Cup Challenge, President of Foodservice Packaging Institute Lynn M. Dyer says, “This takes a great deal of time and effort, and certainly not something that can be done alone or by simply designing a new cup.”

Dyer adds, “The truth is no cup is recyclable until it is widely accepted by communities, recycling facilities and paper mills.”

Hopefully, between the NextGen Cup Challenge and the internal R&D team, Starbucks can produce a greener cup that is actually recyclable, thus reducing the amount of waste found in landfills and alongside the coasts.  If we're lucky, maybe they'll even let us know how they’re doing every once in a while.


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Casha Doemland

LA-based and Georgia-bred, Casha Doemland spends her days crafting poetry and freelance writing. Over the last two years, she’s been published in a variety of publications and zines around the world. When she’s not nerding out with words, you can catch her watching a classic film, trekking around the globe or hanging out with a four-pound Pomeranian.