Starbucks’ Reusable Cups and Sustainability Practices  

Starbucks has always been known as a company that prizes sustainable practices. Infrastructure has, of course, its limitations, some of which prohibited the mega-brand from instituting desired environmentally sound protocol. Despite some setbacks, they have continued to put procedures in place designed to protect the planet and the living creatures that inhabit it.

Over 30 years ago, Starbucks presented the 10-cent reusable cup discount. Customers simply use their own cup and get a 10-cent discount. Despite this program, which continued until COVID-19 struck, very few of their guests took them up on the savings and opportunity to limit waste. It’s estimated that only 2.8% of the coffee chain’s customers brought in their own cups.

Despite the limited use, these efforts kept over 105 million disposable cups from making it to a landfill. The coffee conglomerate kept its search up for better sustainable practices and continues to look for a way to make recycling or reuse a larger part of everyday life.

The Environmental Footprint of Disposable Coffee Cups

Today, America sends more than 100 billion throw-away cups to U.S. landfills every year and more than half of these are paper cups. Each year, 20 million trees are cut down and 12 billion gallons of water are used to make these types of cups. About 600 billion are distributed around the world, and Starbucks accounts for about 1% of these, or 6 billion.

Unfortunately, because most of these single-use cups are coated with a thin layer of plastic to keep the cardboard from getting soggy, many are not recyclable. It takes just one cup about 20 years to decompose in a landfill. Starbucks is trying to change that.

Actually, Starbucks has been trying to change that for some time. Human behavior and failed technology, however, seemed to keep their lofty goals just of reach. In 2010, the brand pledged that 100% of their cups would be recyclable or reusable by 2015. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Starbucks Sustainable Practices

In 1996, the company joined with the Environmental Defense Fund to explore opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of their disposable cups. The next year, they developed a cup sleeve made from recycled content. In 2006, they developed the first hot beverage paper cup made with 10% recycled fiber.

Then, in 2018, Starbucks offered $10 million to the first company or person to develop a recyclable paper coffee cup. Their partner in this search for an environmentally-friendly paper cup was Closed Loop Partners, a recycling-focused investor group.

In 2020, the BioPBS-lined cup, which is both recyclable and compostable, found its way into select stores for a trial run. This same year, Starbucks committed to reducing carbon, waste, and water use by 50% by 2030.

In 2021, they started their Borrow a Cup Program in Seattle. These are just a few of their many sustainable practices developed throughout their history.

Seattle’s Borrow a Cup Program

Through Memorial Day, Starbucks is testing out their reusable cup rental service in five of their Seattle stores. Partnering with Go Box, a zero-waste service that eliminates single-use trash by providing reusable containers and cups, customers may buy into the program by spending an extra dollar.

This dollar buys them a reusable cup. When they return said cup back to a contactless kiosk or through Ridwell, a Seattle-area recycling pickup service, they receive their dollar back, along with 10 bonus stars on their Starbucks rewards account.

Ridwell collects the reusable cups right from the person’s home, and Go Box collects, cleans, and sanitizes the cups before recirculating.

When you think about all the moving parts, it’s a pretty remarkable solution to our growing disposable economy. Even better, it rewards customers for choosing sustainable practices. Once they’ve earned 50 stars by using and returning five reusable cups, they’ve earned a complimentary hot coffee or tea, or a bakery item.

Hopefully, the limited trial will prove successful and we’ll find the Borrow a Cup program at our favorite Starbucks. The brand told USA Today that they plan “to learn from, adapt, and scale based on our learnings.”

In the meantime, the use of personal cups is still on hold due to continued COVID-19 concerns.

Fortunately for us and our Earth, Starbucks is one of many companies looking to recycling as a part of a sustainable practice equation. McDonald’s has set a goal to source 100% of their food and drink packaging from renewable, recycled, or certified sources, and to recycle 100% of guest’s food packaging in their restaurants by 2025.

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