When you drop that used white paper cup into the bin next to the door at a Starbucks, have you done your part to save the planet? Starbucks has long hoped that you would think so. After all, there’s no better way to attract an affluent, eco-conscious clientele than to convince customers that your disposable product is “renewable.” So, in 2008 the coffee company announced that by 2015 it would offer recycling at all company-operated branches.
That seemed like the least that Starbucks — which sells 4 billion disposable cups a year — could do. The coffee giant has the financial wherewithal to install gold-plated recycling bins in all of its stores, if it chose to do so. Yet last week, Starbucks said in its 2013 Global Responsibility Report that it wasn’t going to meet its recycling goals in 2015 — if ever. In fact, five years into its program, the company had only managed to implement customer recycling at 39 percent of its company-operated stores.
What went wrong? The failure derives less from Starbucks’ lack of commitment than to the almost totemic belief that just because something can be recycled doesn’t mean it can be recycled economically. Put differently: Good intentions don’t turn used Starbucks cups into new ones — profit motives do. And for now, there’s no money in it.
First, Starbucks cups are lined with plastic to keep them from leaking, and that plastic needs to be removed before the cups can be transformed into new paper. True, technology exists to remove that lining. But recyclers will only bother if they are supplied with enough used cups to justify running the process on a regular basis.
Paradoxically, the problem is that Starbucks customers don’t throw away enough cups to make recycling a viable option. In 2010, for example, Starbucks ran a pilot program in which it collected three tons of cups from 170 Toronto-area stores and sent them for recycling in the United States. That volume — three tons! — might sound like a lot, but it actually amounts to a sliver of a percent of the 51.5 million tons of recyclable paper and cardboard recovered in the U.S. that year.
John Mulcahy, vice president of strategy and category effectiveness at Georgia-Pacific, based in Atlanta, told the Boston Globe in 2011 that the paper in all the Starbucks cups used in a year amounts to less than a week’s worth of production at one of his company’s paper mills. For a company such as Georgia-Pacific, recycling Starbucks cups isn’t a business; it’s a test project worth pursuing for PR, and perhaps for the day when Starbucks and other restaurants pool their used paper cups in a way that makes them attractive as a business prospect.
Of course, there is a symbolic value in a recycled Starbucks cup, and that’s why the company worries so much about it. But if, as seems likely, there’s no economical recycling solution available, what should Starbucks do about all of those white cups?
Composting keeps the cups out of landfills, but it generates greenhouse gases while destroying the recycling value packed into the cup’s fibers. Reusable cups are a nice idea, but one that consumers simply don’t embrace. In 2008, for example, the company set a goal of serving 25 percent of all beverages in personal, reusable tumblers by 2015; in 2011, it served just 1.9 percent in personal tumblers, and lowered the 2015 goal to 5 percent, despite making available low-cost tumblers (which have their own recycling issues).
In fact, the best outcome may be the discussion that Starbucks inadvertently began when it gave up on the possibility of recycling in all of its stores. “Recycling seems like a simple, straightforward initiative,” the company admitted in a statement on Wednesday. “But it’s actually quite challenging.” If consumers can be made to understand how the company came to that humbling insight, they might stop buying and throwing away so many paper cups in the first place.
Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamMinter.