Starbucks Continues its Quest for a Greener Cup

For more than 30 years, Starbucks has been working to reduce the environmental impact of its paper cups, with teams of partners (employees) focused on addressing this challenge head-on. With more than 80 percent of cups leaving the stores with customers, the company is more committed than ever to make its cup recyclable.

The road to a fully recycled paper cup

In 1997, the company launched a cup sleeve as an alternative to double-cupping to further reduce waste. This was followed by the 2006 move to hot cups made with 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, the first of its kind to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We’ve tested various sustainable paper cups, but have yet to find one that meets our standards,” said Andy Corlett, Starbucks director, Packaging Solutions. “We’re actively looking for a high-quality paper cup that can hold our coffee and beverages.”

Advancements in cup recycling

The recyclability of Starbucks® paper cup varies significantly by city, state and municipality and is based on recycling services that are offered. The company continues advocating to key policymakers to invest in these services to address this challenge.

Starbucks has even crowd-sourced the search for a solution – enlisting support from other companies and academics and hosting three Cup Summits, one at the company’s Seattle headquarters and two at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. This resulted in a partnership with the Food Service Packaging Institute (FPI) to form the Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA), an industry coalition aimed at recycling and composting paper cups and other foodservice items across the U.S. and Canada.

“Today, there are limited locations for recycling our cup in curbside programs,” said Nicki McClung, Starbucks senior specialist for Global Responsibility. “Our work with FPI is growing those options, working with communities, recycling facilities and paper mills.”

“As a founding member of the PRA, Starbucks has shown its commitment to getting more paper cups recycled,” said FPI President Lynn Dyer. “Today, we are seeing a growing number of communities accepting paper cups for recycling, and that’s thanks, in part, to Starbucks.”

A greener lid in the U.S.

Inside a 200,000-foot product development center outside of Chicago, a 100-member team of designers, engineers and scientists assembled to invent a new hot cup lid for Starbucks. Five years later, the team had created a lid made with polypropylene, the first of its kind in the U.S.

“We started with a few sketches on paper and once our engineers had developed the ideal blend of polypropylene, we cut a series of prototypes for Starbucks review - one lid at a time until we arrived on the best size and shape,” said Frank Petlak, Commercial Director, Pactiv Foodservice. “Starbucks has a very thorough testing process. We supplemented this by conducting focus groups to make sure the new lid did not impact the coffee drinking experience for its customers.”

The change to polypropylene allows for the lid to be recycled in a growing number of U.S. markets. Distribution of the hot cup lid to all Starbucks stores in North America is in progress and expected to be complete by June 2017.

"This is a big step for us,” said McClung. “With the development of the new lid, we open up more recycling options for our packaging.”

“Starbucks investment in a recyclable lid is a big deal,” Petlak said. “There is already a big recycling stream for polypropylene in the U.S. This lid is going to have a positive impact on that stream and hopefully encourage other major retailers to follow suit.”

“We are proud to have partnered with Starbucks to develop its new polypropylene hot cup lid,” said Craig Glaser, Marketing Director, International Paper Foodservice Division, part of the team that worked alongside employees at Pactiv. “We look forward to future innovations with Starbucks and other companies that help protect our environment.”

A reusable solution

Beyond recycling, Starbucks overall waste reduction strategy includes global efforts to encourage reusable cups, offering a discount to customers who bring in a personal tumbler. Each store also has “for-here” ware, for customers who would like to enjoy their orders while in store.

Four years ago, Starbucks launched a reusable cup and has sold more than 16 million units to date. The $2 reusable polypropylene cup, designed to look like the company’s paper cups, is sturdier than paper, but thinner than a typical tumbler with a lifespan of about 30 uses. Customers receive a dime discount for each refill in the cup, so it pays for itself after 20 uses.

The company annually shares its goals and progress in its Global Social Impact Report. The 2016 Report will be released later this month.