By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Starbucks will soon begin a trial to offer reusable cups in its cafes across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) by 2025. In its South Korea stores, as announced earlier, the company will go one step further and eliminate disposable cups in all stores by 2025, making South Koreas the first place where the cStarbucks will phase out disposable cups entirely.
By these measures, Starbucks aims to reduce its massive waste footprint somewhat. According to Bloomberg:
The rapid surge in coffee drinking in many countries during the past two decades fueled an increase in disposable waste. An audit conducted with sustainability consultant Quantis and the World Wildlife Fund found that in 2018 Starbucks dumped 868 metric kilotons of coffee cups and other garbage. That’s more than twice the weight of the Empire State Building.
The initial reusable cups trial will be launched in France, Germany and the U.K. and then expanded to all 3,840 Starbucks outlets across 43 countries in the EMEA region, according to a company statement.
In the pilot projects, Starbucks will trial a Cup-Share program that allows customers to pay a small deposit for a reusable cup for hot and cold beverages. Tested to last up to 30 times and available in three sizes, each cup uses an identifying number associated with the Starbucks reusable cup to the deposit paid. The customer will then be able to use their reusable and return it to Starbucks via a kiosk or at the point of sale. Upon return, Starbucks will give the deposit back to the customer in the form of tender.
As part of the Cup-Share program, Starbucks will be introducing a new reusable cup that uses patented foaming technology that results in a rigid and durable wall structure with up to 70% less plastic than current reusable cups. In addition, this unique wall structure provides insulation for both hot and cold liquids, so that it can be used for both hot and cold beverages without the need for any sleeve, helping to further reduce our resource footprint.
Now, that’s all groovy. Yet thirty uses – that’s not all that much. A month’s worth of coffee, assuming the consumer has a one cup a day Starbucks habit. So, my first question, which I’ve not been able to answer by poring over public statements: what happens to that reusable cup after after uses? Can it be recycled? Yes, a cup that can be used thirty times appears better than ones disposed after each use, but the latter are paper cups with a plastic liner, and the new reusable cups are plastic. So, if those end up in landfills, are we as much better off as we’d like to be? Especially as some consumers will forget to bring back their reusable cups, meaning that Starbucks will not get the full thirty uses out of each reusable cup it provides.
Starbucks will revive other waste reduction programs that were temporarily suspended during the pandemic. According to the company:
This initiative will be in addition to providing a 25-30 pence/cent discount for any customer bringing in their own reusable cup across the region. The company is also re-introducing its 5 pence/cent paper cup surcharge in the U.K. and Germany to encourage reusable usage with funds being directed to environmental charities addressing global waste issues. This re-introduction is compounded by Starbucks stores in Switzerland and Czech Republic also introducing a paper cup charge over the coming weeks.
Note that hese Starbucks program are limited to certain countries. What about the U.S.? We’re far from number one in our waste management policies, and Starbucks has not included the U.S. in the reusable cups pilot. Nor has it announced any plans to eliminate disposable cups entirely in the U.S.. Instead, the company’s efforts are limited to a measly initiative to resurrect another programs suspended during the pandemic. And according to NJ.com:
Starbucks soon will allow guests to use personal reusable cups again.
The popular coffee chain announced in a press release that company-operated stores in the United States would be “safely reintroducing personal reusable cups” on June 22.
Starbucks suspended the usage of personal cups in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company created a contactless cup-refill method to eliminate any shared touch points between customers and baristas.
“Bringing back personal reusable cups is key part of Starbucks’ ongoing commitment to reduce single-use cup waste and goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030,” the company said.
There are over 250 Starbucks locations in New Jersey.
I get it that Starbucks is trying to reduce its waste footprint. To its credit, it doesn’t rely on the recycling fairy to solve its waste problem – perhaps because, disposable coffee cups are particularly difficult to recycle, as this 2018 Treehugger story discusses, Starbucks Cups Are Not Recyclable, Which Means 4 Billion Go to Landfill Each Year. A billion each year. That’s a lot of coffee cups.
What the company needs at this stage is some regulatory assistance to buttress – or kick start – depending on how you look at it, its shift to reusable cups. An effective program might include a combination of large surcharges on disposable cups, a larger discount for people who bring their own, and an in-store reusable cups program. Notice that I mentioned above that South Korea would be the first place where the company will eliminate disposable cups completely.
Why is that? Because Starbucks has no choice. South Korea’s regulators appear serious about reducing the country’s plastic waste by 20% by 2025, according to Treehugger, Starbucks Will Eliminate Disposable Cups in South Korea by 2025:
Starbucks South Korea announced this week that it will eliminate all single-use disposable cups by 2025. Instead, beverages will be served in reusable cups, with customers paying a small deposit that is refunded when they return the cup using a contactless, automated in-store kiosk.
The new business model will launch this summer in select stores in Jeju, an island to the south of the mainland, and then roll out in additional stores across the country over the next four years. A company statement says, “This program helps Starbucks shift from single use to reusable packaging, bringing the company one step closer to its global goal of cutting its landfill waste in half by 2030.“[Jerri-Lynn here: citation omitted.]
The move is surely linked to South Korea’s own changes in environmental policies. In 2018, the use of disposable cups for dine-in customers was banned. Legislation introduced last year, according to The New York Times, “would require fast food and coffee chains to charge refundable deposits for disposable cups to encourage returns and recycling.”
That’s a clever strategy to get customers thinking about the environmental repercussions of using disposables and hold them accountable in some way. South Korea’s environment ministry said it wants to reduce the country’s plastic waste by one-fifth by 2025.
Once national policies become hostile to disposability, companies are forced to come up with new ways of conducting business, and they usually innovate very quickly. If Starbucks can do this in one country, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. [Jerri-Lynn here: My emphasis.]
In the absence of such regulatory assistance, the tougher its waste policy, the more Starbucks risks the possibility that consumers may find it easier to buy their coffee for a shop that doesn’t have such tough policies. According to another Treehugger account, Starbucks Introduces Reusable Cup Program in Europe, Middle East, Africa:
It would be nice to see additional measures put in place to encourage people to use their own, however. Thirty uses isn’t all that many for a reusable cup—only a month’s worth of daily coffees. Most people own insulated cups that they’ve used far more times than that, which is why an incentive that greatly discounts bringing one’s own should be a top priority for the company—something like 1 Euro or more. This could be offset by greatly increasing the surcharge for disposables to act as a true deterrent. If that is too complicated, a basic sign above the cash that says “We’d love to fill your reusable cup” might go a long way toward building customer participation.
A sign? Is that a serious suggestion?
What would be much more effective in reducing waste would be for regulators to ban disposable coffee cups entirely. Or, to levy a large surcharge – say five dollars, five euros, or five pounds, as appropriate – on disposable cups, with the proceeds directed to waste clean-up initiatives. You could still get a disposable cup if you insisted – you would just need to pay more for that dubious pleasure. Far more likely for most consumers than ponying up that fiver is that they would soon remember to bring their own, or alternatively – and even more likely – that Starbucks would quickly roll out the reusable cups initiatives that it’s planning for EMEA countries and South Korea worldwide, or at least wherever regulators had the fortitude to adopt tough restrictions on disposable cups.
We have bottle deposit laws, and those encourage people to return bottles for recycling (and not just the people who purchased the bottles in the first instance).
For coffee cups, recycling’s not a viable option. At least not for the disposable currently in use. So regulators need either to ban the disposable cups entirely, or levy a high enough surcharge so that people – and the company – turn to other options.