How Starbucks could get its customers to use fewer paper cups

[Editor's note: This is part of a month-long series on food sustainability by Marc Gunther. Coffee's been one of the recurring themes of the series. Marc also wrote about fair-trade coffee, as well as the steps Starbucks and Thanksgiving Coffee are taking to ensure ethical sourcing, last week.]

Starbucks generates 4 billion paper cups a year. Yikes! That’s about 12 cups for every man, woman and child in America.  The company has been working hard with an array of partners to build a system that would enable these cups to be recycled.

There is a way to reduce some of that waste: Charge customers 10 cents for every paper cup they use. As it happens, the company already does just that. It just doesn’t do it in an effective way. The result is Starbucks is missing a big opportunity to have a lighter environmental footprint.

Let me explain. Starbucks now offers its customers 10 cents off the price of any beverage if they bring their own mug. It doesn’t make a big deal out of this. But according to information on its website, on a page headlined “Make A Difference,”  the company says:

“Join the movement. Bring a reusable travel mug and get a 10 cent discount on any Starbucks beverage, anytime. One person can save trees, together we can save forests.”

And that sounds great – except that, if Starbucks really wanted to save trees, it wouldn’t offer discounts to people who bring mugs. It would charge a dime to everyone who does not.

Notice I’m not suggesting Starbucks change its prices; I’m only recommending that the company change the way it talks about its prices.

Right now, if a tall coffee has a list price of $1.60, the company will sell it to me for $1.50 if I bring my mug. Instead, it should set the price at $1.50 and charge 10 cents extra for the paper cup.

Next page: Same prices, big difference