Starbucks' Hunt For The Recyclable Cup

Starbucks' Hunt For The Recyclable Cup

Fast Company has a surprisingly nuanced article about the difficulties Starbucks has faced in creating their holy grail: a 100% recyclable paper cup.

Paper cups have a wax coating so they can't be recycled with the regular paper.  They would need to be sorted out, in an entirely separate box.  Or - more likely, given the current technology - picked out of the conveyor belt by hand. 

(I have my own solution to this problem: a travel cup system that works the same way as glass bottles for milk.  When you buy glass bottled milk you pay a deposit - usually around $2.50.  The next time you buy milk you bring the old bottle in and exchange it. 

If you forget to bring the old bottle in, you just pay another $2.50.  Inevitably you end up with a bunch of extra empty bottles - just bring them into the store and get $2.50 back for each of them.  The fee is enough to cover the expense of carting away the old bottles and sterilizing them. 

This system would be awesome for Starbucks mugs, because it doesn't necessarily require you to remember to bring your travel mug.  Which is always my big problem.)

Starbucks has started a pilot program in Chicago.  In partnership with Georgia Pacific, Starbucks cups from Chicago will be trucked away, pulped, and turned into napkins for Starbucks stores. 

Of course, as you may have noticed, if you're at a Starbucks store (and you forgot your travel mug, you naughty thing) there is no place where you can recycle your cup.  Part of this project towards complete recyclability by 2015 is installing recycling bins at every Starbucks store.

This effort is admittedly something like tilting at windmills.  Recycling a cup may be the smallest of all the possible environmental concerns.  For example, that cup had to be produced in the first place - which involved a lot of fuel burned in transportation, trees pulped in fiber mills powered by electricity or possibly coal, chemicals used to bleach the paper, and on and on. 

But the white Starbucks cup is iconic, and it's the part of Starbucks that the customer actually holds in their hands.  If we can be made to feel good about the Starbucks to-go cup, presumably Starbucks is hoping those feelings will transfer to the company itself. 

(If I were a more cynical person, I might say that the whole point of the exercise is to greenwash the company as a whole.  But I have a good friend who works in the Starbucks corporate offices, and I know that as a company, their hearts are in the right place.)

It's true that more good could be done by outfitting Starbucks stores with solar panels than by making their cups recyclable.  But why be churlish?  Maybe the best thing about this whole deal is that, by making such a public effort out of finding a way to recycle their cups, Starbucks impresses upon its customers that this kind of thing is important.

Starbucks has become, for better or worse, a cultural leader.  And if they can lead us to recycle more, then all the better. 

Photo credit: Flickr/Louis Abate