Americans use about 58 billion paper cups each year. But landfills are quickly running out of space for the 645,000 tons of waste they result in. At the same time, consumers are taking notice of the foodservice industry’s growing inconvenient truth, pushing for more green alternatives to traditional packaging. The solution seems easy: Prevent the cups from going into landfills and cut back green house emissions equivalent to removing about half a million cars from the road.
But the solution is anything but easy, Starbucks is finding. In an attempt to divert its cups from landfills and perhaps save the planet along the way, Starbucks, which pumps about three billion cups into the global consumer stream each year, is recruiting the recycling and packaging industries to help make 100 percent of its cups recyclable by 2012.
“What you’ve seen in the past is somebody will call a product recyclable based on the materiality of that product and not necessarily whether or not it’s actually able to get recycled,” says Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks. “So for our cups, for us to actually call our cups recyclable, they have to be recyclable in the communities where we operate our stores.”
There have been efforts to make cups more recyclable and eco-friendly before within the company. In 2006, Starbucks introduced a paper cup that contained 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, and last year it switched from the standard PET cold cups to polypropylene cold cups, which use significantly less plastic and reduce greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing by 45 percent. But today Starbucks is thinking even bigger. The new initiative to make its cups recyclable goes beyond just what the cup is made of, it takes into account the entire life of the cup.
In May, as part of the effort, the coffee company conducted its first Cup Summit at its Seattle headquarters, gathering experts from every facet of the cup supply chain, including raw material providers, cup manufacturers, cup converters, environmental NGOs, waste management companies, Starbucks’ peer companies, academics, and municipalities.
“That was really the first time that we know of that the entire value chain of one product was in the same room having these discussions,” Hanna says. “It was such a huge eye-opener to watch discussion across these channels that had never happened before.”
According to Hanna, Starbucks had two goals in conducting its Cup Summit. “Obviously one of the goals was to get people understanding that they play a significant role in the process,” he says. “And then the other goal was to help us develop some specific work streams about how we are going to get to this endpoint of 2012 where we can consider our cups recyclable.”
The overall aim for Starbucks, Hanna says, is to get all retailers, including Starbucks’ competitors, using similarly designed, completely recyclable products. In addition, it’s looking to create an infrastructure that can deliver those products successfully to recycling facilities.
Part of that infrastructure is within Starbucks itself. Hanna says the company is testing front-of-house recycling in New York City, San Francisco, and Ontario. In the New York test, Starbucks is teaming with Global Green, an environmental nonprofit, to recycle its paper cups into corrugated cardboard at a Staten Island plant.
“The goal with that is to say, ‘Can our cups be certified to go into the … old corrugated cardboard recycling stream and be made into cardboard?’” Hanna says. “There is a robust infrastructure already set up to recycle cardboard.”
Annie White is the director of the New York office of Global Green USA and the group’s Coalition for Resource Recovery. She’s working with 11 participating companies, including Starbucks, to find ways to divert food and food-packaging waste away from the city’s waste stream and into recycling mills.
“One of the things that we did for preparation for the Cup Summit was we released a plan for a protocol to certify paper food packaging as recyclable with corrugated cardboard,” White says. If food packaging like Starbucks’ cups can be recycled into corrugated cardboard, it can essentially get a free ride to the recycle mill and be a cost-neutral program. “Corrugated cardboard is the most recycled material in the U.S.,” White says. “It has a very developed infrastructure; most restaurants already have a corrugated pick-up line.”
The joint test began in September in seven Manhattan Starbucks units, using Pratt Industries in Staten Island as the test recycle mill. White says the goal is to grow to at least 130 stores, which she hopes to accomplish by the second quarter of 2011.