Starbucks wants to change its signature cups

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Bethany Patton walks up to the table and places her pink mug in a shoebox-sized dishwasher. Spins. It’s buzzing. Spray water inside. After 90 seconds, the door opens and steam comes out. The barista grabs the cup, dries it, and prepares Patton’s order — a 16-ounce Starbucks double espresso cup over ice.

For bringing her own cup, Patton gets $1 off her drink.

“Saving the environment is important, but maybe I came here because I know I’m going to get a dollar,” says Patton, 27, a cancer researcher at Arizona State University. Two friends who came for coffee in the afternoon nod while holding cups they also brought with them.

It’s notable that what they carry is what they don’t: a disposable Starbucks cup, an icon in a world where the word is overused.

For a generation and more, this mug has remained a cornerstone of consumer society, first in the United States and then globally – the disposable mug bearing the emerald logo depicting a long-haired siren with strands like ocean waves. They were ubiquitous to the point of being an accessory, and they carried a message: I drink coffee from the most famous coffee brand in the world.

Now, in an age where caring about sustainability can be good business, the Starbucks disposable cup may be on its way to extinction thanks to an unexpected force: Starbucks itself.

A reusable cup is returned to the cup loan basket at an Arizona State University Starbucks store on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Tempe, Arizona.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Convenience is incompatible with virtue

By 2030, Starbucks wants to move away from disposable cups, which account for large portions of the company’s total waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

The stated reason is that it’s the right thing to do for the environment, and Starbucks has a history of lofty sustainability goals around various aspects of its global operations. Some of these requirements have been met, such as new stores obtaining energy efficiency certificates; Others have been revised or eliminated entirely. For example, in 2008, the company said that by 2015 it wanted 100% of its cups to be recyclable or reusable. Today, this is still a long way off.

Today’s campaign to fix the cup comes with a clear business imperative. The production of disposable products like cups generates greenhouse gas emissions, which warm the planet and lead to extreme weather events and other manifestations of climate change. This runs counter to growing customer expectations that companies will be part of the solution to climate change.

However, while customers want companies to be environmentally conscious, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to give up convenience. And there’s this: Could eliminating millions of paper and plastic cups used each year hurt Starbucks? After all, those cups, falling into customers’ hands, are advertising — a market penetration that makes Starbucks feel ubiquitous.

At the store where Patton gets her coffee, Starbucks doesn’t serve any of it in disposable paper or plastic cups. Customers who do not bring their own are given a reusable plastic one that can be placed in bins around campus. It’s one of two dozen pilots over the past two years aimed at changing the way the world’s largest coffee maker delivers its coffee products.

The goal: to cut the company’s waste, water use and carbon emissions in half by 2030. Achieving this will be difficult and risky. It provides a window into how companies move from ambitious sustainability goals to actual results.

“Our vision for the cup of the future — our holy grail, if you will — is that the cup still has the iconic symbol on it,” says Michael Kobori, head of sustainability at Starbucks. “It’s just a reusable cup.”

(More: A new study highlights the widespread danger of plastics, and calls for a global treaty)

Starbucks sees the change as an opportunity to cast the sirens and the company in a different light. It also wants to push more suppliers in its production chain to provide recycled materials and partners, such as universities and other local areas with stores, to be able to handle everything that comes with reusable cups.

A commitment from big companies can help, says Erin Simon, vice president of plastic waste and business at WWF. But she says big change can ultimately only happen through corporate cooperation and government regulation.

“No single institution, no single organization, not even one sector can change this situation alone,” says Simon.

At Starbucks, the changes will have ripple effects. John Solorzano, a Los Angeles lawyer who advises companies on developing climate-friendly processes and disclosures (an area he refers to as “environmental, social and governance”), says the company likely has hundreds of suppliers who help make the cups.

“It’s like turning an aircraft carrier around,” Solorzano says. “Small, seemingly insignificant adjustments can actually pose significant operational challenges to an organization.”

Starbucks isn’t the first company to move toward a reusable cup. From large companies in Europe, like Germany’s RECUP, which uses reusable cups and other food packaging, to local coffee shops in cities like San Francisco, the goal for years has been to eliminate disposable paper and plastic.

But as the world’s largest coffee company, with more than 37,000 stores in 86 countries and revenue of $32 billion last year, Starbucks can force change throughout the industry. Meanwhile, failure to adapt and lead could hurt the coffee giant in the eyes of customers.

“I will always choose the more sustainable company,” says Erin Lenaio Putman, a public health worker from San Diego who recently purchased a Starbucks while visiting Seattle.

The path to container repair goes beyond simply making a different choice or spending money. Improving sustainability requires navigating a web of technological developments, seeking out like-minded suppliers, and testing the extent to which customers can be nudged to change.

For Starbucks, this means doing two key things in parallel that seem in conflict: moving toward reusable-only cups while developing disposable cups that use fewer materials and are more recyclable. And manage optics all the way.

“They’re just trying to attract more buyers,” said 10-year-old Aria June, laughing after purchasing a Starbucks in Seattle. Then, with her father’s encouragement, she added that sustainability and getting more business could coexist.

Different types of reusable cups are displayed at an Arizona State University Starbucks store on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Tempe, Arizona.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(More: PFAs have been detected in all 50 states)

Reuse mechanisms

At the Arizona store, if customers don’t bring their own cup, they will be given a reusable plastic cup with the Starbucks logo. If they return it, they get a $1 discount, just like customers who bring their own products. And if they don’t want to stick to it? There are trash bins around campus, and the university washes the cups — as part of a partnership with Starbucks — and returns them to the store.

Cups that are too damaged to be reused, along with disposable Starbucks cold drink cups and other plastic found in the bin, are sent to the university’s Circular Life Lab. It is cut, melted and extruded into long, wood-like pieces. These pieces are cut, polished and combined into boxes, which become return boxes for the reusable cups.

“Obviously this involves some energy and production costs, but using recycled content will always be less energy intensive (and) emit less carbon dioxide than using virgin plastic,” says Tyler Eglin, the lab’s project manager.

Several years ago, Starbucks increased the amount of recycled materials in its disposable paper cups. In some markets last year, Starbucks began using single-use paper cups made from 30% recycled materials, up from 10%. The plan is to have all cups made using 30% recycled materials in all U.S. stores starting in early 2025.

This pushes the boundaries of what can be done with recycled paper materials containing hot liquids. Paper pulp from recycled cups has shorter fibers than virgin pulp, which means lower stiffness, which is especially important with hot coffee. The amount of recycled material that can be used to manufacture new cups depends on how equipped any given area is for collecting and recycling materials. Big cities have great recycling infrastructure, but many communities around the world have little or no recycling capacity.

Another barrier: the lining inside the cup, which is necessary to prevent hot liquid from quickly destroying the paper. Made from polyethylene, a heat-resistant plastic, the liner represents about 5% of the total cup but is a significant portion of the overall carbon footprint. There is also a plastic cover.

“Today, the reality is that for protection, when we put a hot beverage inside, we need a good seal on those cups,” says Jane Tselas, director of packaging at Starbucks.

A similar testing and refining process is done with disposable cold drink cups. At the Trier Center Innovation Lab at Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle, drinks containing ice are placed in plastic cups in holders attached to a platform. It then vibrates while technicians check for leaks and defects.

Over the past few years, Starbucks has been testing different types of plastic. In 2019, the company switched to a straw-free lid, eliminating a fair amount of plastic. By the end of 2023, the goal is to reduce the amount of material in each cup by 15%.

To do this, technicians examine different parts of the cup to see where less material can be used without weakening it. For example, could reducing the thickness of where many people hold the cup, about halfway between the center and the lid, cause the cup to collapse and the customer to spill the drink?

“If it passes tests with baristas, we’ll roll it out to stores,” says Kyle Walker, a packaging engineer on Starbucks’ research and development team.

Michael Kobori, Starbucks’ chief sustainability officer, holds a reusable cup used in the new “Borrow-a-Cup” program during an interview at the Tryer Center at Starbucks headquarters, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Seattle.

(AP Photo/Lindsay Wasson)

Not as easy as it may seem

Ultimately, the endpoint is this outcome, which is more sustainable and good PR too: no more consumables at Starbucks.

This is because regardless of testing or technological innovations, there are limits to how much waste can be reduced with disposable paper and plastic cups. Waste will be reduced in the long run with reusable cups.

The company has a long way to go. Since reusable cups were reintroduced in some stores in July 2021 — reusable cups were not used during much of the COVID-19 pandemic — just 1.2% of global sales in fiscal 2022 came from reusables. Starbucks declined to provide data on how many disposable cups it uses in any given year.

Despite all the talk about sustainability and increased awareness about climate change, it’s fair to assume that a significant number of Starbucks’ disposables end up in landfills. Even in Seattle, a progressive city with good recycling infrastructure, there are many cups in trash bins outside Starbucks stores.

Valencia Villanueva, a barista at the Arizona store, has noticed a growing awareness among customers about the cup washer and the “loan” cup program. This gives her confidence that the future is reusable cups. After all, it’s not as if anyone is asking for extravagance — even if what they’re giving up is an item that has become a global status symbol.

“No one complained and said they wanted a disposable cup,” she says.


Peter Bringaman is news director for The Associated Press’ climate and environment team and can be followed here. Video journalist Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.


AP’s climate and environment coverage receives support from many private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment, and the importance of science in our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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