Every year Americans use over 200 billion paper cups. While that number is rather mind-boggling, an equally amazing number is that 3 billion of those cups have a Starbucks’ logo on them. Given that the company has a link to its statement on social responsibility right at the top of its website, you might guess that a large fraction of those cups are recycled or composted. It turns out you would be wrong. Most end up in the trash but the company is working hard to change that (The Starbucks Cup Dilemma, Fast Company, Nov 2010).
The reality is that cups are not the biggest resource sink or consumer of carbon in Starbucks’ value chain but trash cans full of cups are the issue most salient with customers. The company has consequently been working to find a way to take back cups and do something with them. This in turn leads to a number of interesting challenges both in setting up a reverse supply chain and managing the customer.
On the question of the reverse supply chain, it would seem that doing something with the cups would be easy, but it turns out that recyclers in the US are just not set up to deal with cups.
Through suppliers, [Jim] Hanna [the company’s director of environmental impact] learned that most U.S. recycling processors currently don’t take paper coffee cups, because they are lined with a tiny amount of plastic or wax to make them watertight. “The recycling industry is already established for paper, plastic, and glass, and sorting out cups is not economically feasible,” says Eric Lombardi, a zero-waste pioneer who runs Eco-Cycle, the nation’s largest not-for-profit recycling company, in Boulder, Colorado. “It doesn’t go with newspaper or cardboard or office paper. I have to stand there and handpick it off a conveyor belt.” Paper mills, in turn, can’t be sure of getting a volume of cups cheaply enough to make it worth their while to invest in the pulpers that can handle them. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
Lombardi says composting might be a better option, but most plastic, unless plant-derived, is a no-no for composting as well. Cedar Grove, for example, has been able to certify its own line of paper and bioplastic food containers by putting them through its eight-week compost process, but currently they can accept only napkins and food waste from Starbucks. “We’re playing with the idea of separating out waste streams to take more restaurant packaging,” Thoman says, “but we have to build the volume to do it.”
So on the processing side, the first problem is an issue of scale. Recycling different products requires different equipment and capabilities and those investment are only worthwhile if there is a sufficient flow of inputs. But Starbucks gives away 3 billion cups a year. Surely that is enough to make some investment worth the effort. That leads to the second problem: The whole point of the paper cup is that the customer can leave with it. Once the customer is gone, how easy it to get the cup back if it can’t go with standard office and newspaper recycling?
“We have no way of quantifying that,” says Hanna. “It’s a customer’s choice whether or not to recycle.” That’s a pretty profound, startling admission of powerlessness. All of Starbucks’s efforts can collapse in the single second it takes to shove a paper cup into the wrong can.
So Starbucks is caught between a rock and a hard place. Without a certain volume of returning cups, no recycler will take back any cups. Without an upstream demand for old cups, no one makes it easy to return cups. To their credit, the barista crew has put in a lot of effort to work with suppliers and even competitors to find an economically viable solution to the problem. They are even running an experiment in their Chicago stores this fall (although as far as I can tell not in their Evanston stores). It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I would venture to guess that even if they just collect cups at their stores they will get a large number of cups back. Most people take separating bottles and cans from trash in stride. I don’t see why cups should be different.