Trash-talking Starbucks' reusable cups

Trash-talking Starbucks' reusable cups

Starbucks cup by Ivana di Carlo via Flickr

I have a long-standing gripe with Starbucks' Environmental Affairs Director Jim Hanna and up until now I’ve tried to keep quiet about it. I’ve tried to stay respectful. I’ve tried to be civil. But all Jim wants to do is talk trash.

I can talk trash, too. I’m on my fifth “reusable” cup. The first one got thrown away in the green room at our GreenBiz Forum earlier this year. The second one had “NOT TRASH” written on its side in indelible ink, but when I stepped away for a break at another conference it disappeared. My son Wes decorated my third cup in day-glo colors but to no avail. My fourth one got thrown out by a maid in my hotel room – in Seattle. Now I’m on number 5 that a barista wrote my order on and I’ve had to black it out like some redacted FBI document (I’m not only a chai tea latte guy; I can swing with a cappuccino now and then).

Don’t get me wrong. I like the cup. I like the heft. I like the lid. I’d just like to have one stick around long enough to be truly re-useable. So I called Jim to find out more about the cup and give some customer feedback.

The cup conundrum

Starbucks beverages fill approximately 4 billion cups globally each year. But until recently most of those cups end up in the trash. As Hanna explained, Starbucks has been working on solutions to this problem even before it started hosting its Cup Summits at MIT. The summits began in 2009 when the company engaged Peter Senge along with a wide range of industry leaders, government officials and others in an attempt to explore a systems-based approach to cup recycling.

The challenge with recycling the cups is not as simple as putting a recycling bin in every store. Once you put your cup in the bin, it needs to go some place where it can actually be recycled. Recycling infrastructure varies widely around the world and even from city-to-city and town-to-town. That has put Jim and other Starbucks folks on the road talking with trash haulers in an attempt to bring cup recycling efforts to scale. Once they assess that a municipality has sufficient infrastructure, Starbucks can do their part by installing recycling bins. While 24 percent of stores had front-of-store recycling last year, the company’s goal is to have in-store recycling for all company-owned locations by 2015.

Will that be plastic, paper or ceramic?

The reason the recycling target is so important is that the company has identified a “2 percent barrier” when it comes to reusable cups. In 2008 the company set a goal to serve 25 percent of all beverages in reusable cups by 2015. This included cups customers brought with them as well as “for here” mugs that stayed in the store. The “for here” mug usage proved difficult to track and the company modified their goal to focus on increasing the use of personal cups.

 In 2011 and 2012, the percent of beverages served in personal cups remained static at 1.5 percent. The company has set a goal to reach 5 percent by 2015 but there are still significant barriers. Personal mugs can cost between 12 and 19 dollars. That led to the development of the one-dollar reusable and recyclable cup.

The $1 cup launched a year ago and is less expensive than other cups because it’s made of a lighter material and less of it. Starbucks describes it as a low-cost way to help make a difference.

It’s a solid cup, but you need to be a detective to find out it’s dishwasher safe. The company’s official statement is that it can be re-used thirty times. Unofficially, the cup’s manufacturer has test washed cups over 170 times without any impact on performance.  The cups and lids contain no BPA and are 100 percent polypropylene, perhaps the most inert beverage resin out there so nothing leeches into your coffee at boiling temperatures. And Hanna assures me that polypropylene has the lowest manufacturing carbon footprint of any plastic cup.

A modest proposal

So what’s my problem with the cup? It’s that it looks just like the traditional Starbucks paper cup. Trust me, I’m hooked on the dollar cup. Just try going back to the paper cup after a few lattes in the dollar cup. It just doesn’t feel as good and that’s feedback I’ve heard from many customers. Yet when I ask about creating a different color lid or something to make it more distinctive, Hanna explains that the similarity between the paper and dollar cups is one of the biggest selling points. The fact that it does look so similar to the company’s existing paper cups fits into the longstanding habits and expectations of their customers.

OK, I get it, Jim. I’m not asking you to take the white lid away from people not open to change. But I’ll pay you another dollar for a Starbucks green lid. Or a blue autism awareness lid. Or a pink cancer awareness lid. Or any other color you think of that’s not white.

Here’s the challenge to our readers. Go to the My Starbucks Idea web site and like my post, “Give the dollar cup a different color lid!” Help save my cup. Thank you.

Image of Starbucks cup by Ivana di Carlo via Flickr