Starbucks' Quest for a Greener Coffee Cup?

One morning last week, as I was trying to get out of bed and ready for work, I heard on KATC's Good Morning Acadiana that Starbucks was pledging $10 million to develop a recyclable and compostable coffee cup to combat the waste it produces. Even while still a quarter asleep, I cheered as the morning show anchors were all, "Just use your own!" and they both held up their stainless steel coffee cups. You go, Tracy and Dave!

I keep thinking about Starbucks' "effort" and how it really misses the point entirely. Many waste reduction groups and bloggers have covered how this is a classic example of greenwashing - making you think something is more sustainable than it actually is.

What's the problem with developing a more recyclable and compostable cup? It's STILL causing waste.

The answer is much more simple than needing to spend $10 million on a new paper cup design. Spend the $10 million to simply provide every Starbucks with, gasp, REUSABLE cups. Good old-fashioned ceramic coffee cups. For anyone planning to drink their coffee at Starbucks, they would not receive a paper cup at all. For people who need their coffee to-go, or for those in the drive-thru, encourage the practice of bringing their own reusable mug.

One thing I've heard, but have not personally verified, is that even if you mention in the drive-thru that you have your own mug, the coffee is still made in a paper cup, then poured into your reusable mug when you pull up at the window. To combat that, drinks can still be made in a ceramic mug, then poured into the customer's reusable mug.

Coffee shops still have to have dish washing machines and sanitizers for all of the prep equipment, so there's still ability to wash and reuse coffee mugs.

Starbucks already sells ceramic and stainless steel mugs with their branding on it, so why is their plan to not turn toward reusable over 'recyclable'? 

Recyclable cups work if customers actually recycle them, and if Starbucks both provides recycling bins and ensures that what's in the recycling bin goes to a recycling facility.

The biggest issue with the "compostable" feature is that, many times, packaging marked as compostable is ONLY compostable in commercial facilities. Meaning, you would not be able to simply toss your used coffee cup into your backyard compost and expect anything to happen. And it is not going to magically compost in the landfill either.

Developing a recyclable and compostable cup may sound like a very green effort, but it is not helping the amount of trash and litter being left behind. It's still single-use, and it can still last for years on land and in waterways. While we're at it, reusable coffee stirrers can be better known as spoons, and sugar and creamer can be provided in larger shakers and pitchers, instead of single packets.

To really combat the issue of waste, companies need to turn toward (or rather, back to) reusable items.

This photo is a few years old, since The Lab in Lafayette is now Rêve Coffee Lab, but the sentiment is what I love about it: cold coffee in a real glass, and breakfast on a real plate with a real fork.

(On a side note, it hurts my heart to dine in at a restaurant and still be handed single-use items like Styrofoam trays and cups and bagged plastic utensils. It might be "easier" than washing dishes, but it is causing so much unnecessary waste.)

But it's not just Starbucks who can benefit from switching to primarily reusable items - if more major coffee shop chains and even independently owned coffee shops could switch, the impact would be extremely visible across the country and the world.

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