A big white monster prowled the streets outside Starbucks headquarters for a whole workweek last November. It was built from around 1,000 used Starbucks cups by Stand.earth, a Bellingham-based environmental action group, whose activists also dressed as Starbucks baristas and offered coffee to employees entering the building.
Stand.earth’s coffee, though, came in recyclable cups. In retaliation, Starbucks dispatched its own baristas to hand out coffee in its existing cups, recyclable in a handful of major cities, Seattle included.
The tiff stemmed from this: The current Starbucks coffee cup is largely not recyclable, because its inside plastic liner can’t be separated from the paper exterior at most recycling plants. That has Starbucks distributing, by its own estimate, about six billion cups (paper and plastic) a year. Stand.earth figures 4 billion paper cups go to landfills.
This March, Starbucks announced it’d put $10 million toward research for a cup that can be widely recycled. That sounds great, but it’s also not the first goal our caffeinated monolith has set. Ten years ago, it announced a plan to make 100 percent of its cups recyclable or reusable and to serve 25 percent of its drinks in reusable vessels by 2015. In 2011 it lowered the reusable goal to five percent. Stand.earth estimates the company currently achieves around two. University of Washington instructor Eric Morel, who teaches a class on Sustainable Coffee Cultures, thinks reusable cups are the ideal solution: “One of the best ways to reduce the amount of waste that you’re producing is not to produce it in the first place.”
Yet at your standard Starbucks your drink arrives in a disposable cup by default. Customers can ask for a reusable mug, but in practice they rarely do (Starbucks offers ten cents off if you bring your own—which also affects little). Moving toward reusable cups might prove a logistical hurdle (more dishes, a new drink labeling system, an incremental service slowdown: “Here or to-go?”). But the company estimates around 20 percent of cups remain in store. So that change could save nearly a billion disposable cups each year. In an email about further promoting cup reuse, Starbucks replied, “We’re going to continue to focus on reusability but do not have any specific details available.”
At Capitol Hill’s Reserve Roastery that greener future might already be underway. Mugs float to you on wooden boards incised with a minimalist logo. Amid the aggressively artisanal digs—a Wonka Land for the waxed-mustache set—paper cups would seem as out of place as a green apron on your barista (aprons here are brown canvas). That littery excess would look, well, trashy.
It’s easy to forget, though, with plenty of legitimately sophisticated coffee shops around, that Starbucks once represented sophistication. (Even if it’s since merged that with Big Gulp culture). The cup’s disposability, its portability, was like a status symbol, that mermaid singing a siren song to refined consumption. You had a personalized order. You were on the go. You weren’t drinking McDonald’s. And those ideas remain ingrained in the brand.
Change, of course, comes slowly. In July 2018, Starbucks announced it would do away with straws everywhere by 2020. Already in Seattle, they’ve largely been replaced by lids bearing an uncanny resemblance to kids’ sippy cups. For a company still taking wobbly steps toward environmental stewardship, that seems just about right.