Starbucks Stalls on Energy and Recycling Goals, Slashes Water Use

OAKLAND, CA — Starbucks made strides in the past year to use to less water and serve ethically-sourced coffee, but lagged on using less energy and adding recycling to stores.

The coffee giant's progress and stumbles, detailed in its latest environmental and social responsibility report, are in some ways tied to outside factors that Starbucks has been trying to influence.

Recycling, for instance, is heavily dependent on what services local governments and waste haulers offer. While 75 percent of Starbucks stores recycle cardboard and other waste from their behind-the-counter operations, only 5 percent have recycling bins for customers to use, and the company is trying to get recycling into all stores by 2015.

"Our ability to recycle in the front of house is largely determined by what is going on in the local recycling industry," said Ben Packard, Starbucks' vice president of global responsibility. "Not every municipality is collecting the exact same commodities."

Starbucks is working market-by-market with recyclers to sync up what they collect from business and what they collect from residents, but the company also has to deal with areas where stores are served by different recyclers that collect different items.

Disparities in recycling programs have also tied into Starbucks' efforts to turn its coffee cups — it churns out about 4 billion a year — into recyclable commodities. The company has held cup summits to bring together players in the recycling supply chain and has been running tests in select markets that have been successful so far in showing that the cups can be recycled with other cardboard and be used in making new cups.

Packard said that Starbucks will be launching recycling programs in Chicago, following on ones in Seattle and San Francisco.

But recycling bins in stores will only capture a small fraction of the cup waste from Starbucks, since about 80 percent of its customers don't hang around in stores after getting their drinks. To that end, Starbucks aims to serve 25 percent of drinks in reusable cups by 2015.

Although the company served 6.4 million more beverages in reusables in 2010 compared to 2009, it's total of 32.6 million servings in reusables was only 1.8 percent of total drinks. "This is a long-term behavior change issue," Packard said. The company has held promotions that provide free drinks to people that bring in reusables — it's holding another one this Earth Day — and provides ceramic mugs for people who stay to drink.

Over on the energy side, Starbucks failed to meet its goal of cutting energy by 25 percent by 2010, and is now pushing that out to 2015. Packard said that was mainly due to delays in finalizing the details of a LEED volume certification program for new stores, which expedites the LEED review process for Starbucks' sites built according to a design that is pre-approved by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Packard said that as Starbucks rolls out new, certified stores, it will take those design elements to existing stores, which should bring down overall energy use. Starbucks did, though, exceed its plans to buy Green-e renewable energy certificates to match half of the electricity used in stores — it bought enough to cover 58 percent — and will next buy enough to cover all store electricity use by 2015.

Starbucks stayed on track to cut water use by a quarter by 2015, with a 22 percent reduction so far. Most of that came, Packard said, to a change in how stores run dipper wells, the small sinks that utensils are placed in to clean them between uses.

Instead of having a continuous stream of water running through the well, employees only run the well when they need to, cutting out about 100 gallons of water per day per store, Packard said. 

The company also expects to meet its goal of sourcing all of its coffee from farms that follow its C.A.F.E. practices, are Fairtrade certified or follow similar ethical guidelines, by 2015. That figure is now at 84 percent, increasing steadily year-by-year as Starbucks works with farmers to explain how the practices can benefit them. "If it's not relevant, like any certification systems, or there is limited understanding, there will be limited uptake," Packard said.

Starbucks sign - CC license by TerryJohnston (Flickr)