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QSR Feature
How Starbucks is Changing Packaging

If the test works and the mill can successfully turn the waste into cardboard, the rest of the U.S. Starbucks locations could potentially follow the same path. “I think the 2012 goal can be reached if there are resources dedicated to reaching that goal,” she says.

Of course, those resources must include facilities outside of Starbucks stores. Considering the amount of cups leaving Starbucks’ doors, a major component of the recycling infrastructure is the individual municipalities that host thousands of new paper coffee cups every day.

“Today the vast majority of our customers walk out our doors with their beverages and for us to be able to call our cups recyclable, we need to move well beyond just setting up recycle bins in our stores,” Hanna says. “Modifying and changing and enhancing the recycling infrastructure is not just a switch you can flip. It requires a lot of direct work with a lot of key cities, a lot of key communities.”

Geoff Rathbone, general manager of solid waste management services for the city of Toronto, participated in the Cup Summit as part of the city’s waste diversion efforts. He estimates that there are about one million paper coffee cups in circulation in Toronto per day and that the city has 5,000 or so public recycling bins in place to receive them—what he calls the largest public space recycling system in the world.

Toronto’s participation in the Cup Summit was important, Rathbone says, as the city looks for new ways to divert waste from its landfills. The city has run out of landfill space and, until recently, was shipping garbage to Michigan.

“What we’re trying to do is basically begin to define what we believe would be a cup that we could manage in our system,” Rathbone says, acknowledging that the city has to figure out a system to accept and separate the various materials in the cups in order to recycle them. “Our overall goal as a city is to divert 70 percent of waste from our landfill, and we’re currently diverting about 44 percent. So, in a way, each package, each piece of food waste must pull its own weight.”

Starbucks’ efforts, according to Rathbone, are one step toward making the cup recycling a fluent, natural process. “Once we get direction of where the cup is going to go in the future, what it’s going to look like, then we can put the infrastructure in place to separate it and to recycle it,” he says. “It’s sort of this typical Catch-22 in that we need clarity on design, and design can not be done until everyone in the chain is involved.”

Where we are today
58 billion paper cups used each year
=
645,000 tons of waste
Removing cups would mean
-2.5 million CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases
=
450,000 cars off the road

Not everyone is ready to jump wholeheartedly on board with Starbucks’ plan.

Kristin Newman is the director of marketing and business strategy for the Memphis, Tennessee–based International Paper Company, which represents a few cogs in the wheel of a coffee cup’s life cycle. International Paper not only manufactures cup stock, but it also has a hand in the containerboard packaging and recycling business.

“We can see what needs to be done from a material-development perspective and then also the challenges of actually recovering this material for use,” Newman says. From International Paper’s perspective, however, Starbucks may not be taking into consideration a few important factors, including the contents of the cup.

“The cups, once they’re used, are contaminated,” she says. “They have coffee, milk, whatever anybody asks for. The preference would actually be to rinse that cup and then recycle it, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a store setting. Composting may be a more suitable outcome for our packaging materials after use because at that point you’re recovering both food waste and the packaging.”

Newman also says that Starbucks might not realize the vast number of players who have to get on board to make this initiative work. There are also regional differences throughout the U.S.—and the entire globe—to take into account. “They have a little bit of a Northwest mentality as they look at this,” she says. “The systems in Seattle are wonderful, the legislative organizations in Seattle and King County are very supportive of making these changes. If you go to some place like Chicago or even if you go to some place like L.A. and you talk about the budgetary issues that are being faced, the crime issues, the education issues, this is so minor to them.

“I applaud Starbucks for setting visionary goals that we all need to try and achieve,” she says, “but when you look at the priorities that this country is facing right now, I just don’t see that getting to it by 2012 is going to be reasonable.”

Hanna says that while the Starbucks initiative might be bold, the company believes it must use whatever pull it can to make positive change.

“We don’t want to be the all-knowing expert when it comes to packaging because we’re not,” he says. “But we do believe that we can use our brand presence, we can use our place in this sector right now to really be a catalyst for those changes and move those changes ahead quickly.”

He emphasizes that the recycling goal isn’t just a minor part of Starbucks’ business.

“The cup is our icon, it’s the symbol of Starbucks, it’s our brand image, and we need to get the cup right,” he says.

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Sam Oches is QSR’s associate editor.