Sustainability is Sexy

I’ve deservedly ranted about Starbucks a lot lately. (See Starbucks: Wasting Up to 6 Million Gallons of Water Every Day and Where Do You Draw the Line?)

Let me ask you and them another question, What about the eco-impact of disposable paper coffee cups? Disposable coffee cups are responsible for the deaths of over 6.5 million trees each year. In 2006 it’s estimated that 16 billion found their way into the trash creating over 250 million pounds of solid waste.


To their credit, in March 2006, Starbucks introduced a new disposable cup containing 10% postconsumer recycled fiber (PCF) content. This however, begs the question, Why only a 10% PCF cup? According to Sustainable is Sexy Blog, Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ Director of Environmental Impact, says, “We may one day see a cup made completely of recycled paper – but the technology needs to catch up first.”

Just like the politicos at FactCheck.org, let’s see if we can find the “real” facts.

Yes, there is not a 100% PCF hot cup, yet. There are vegetable-base 100% biodegradable and compostable hot cups. Interestingly, also in 2006, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters introduced hot and cold to-go cups made out poly-lactic acid (PLA), a polymer derived entirely from natural cornstarches and is 100% renewable on an annual basis. In 2007, Tully’s Coffee Corporation also adopt a fully renewable and compostable paper cup for its hot beverages. Tully’s simultaneously established an in-store collection program to divert the used cups and other compostable food waste from local landfills to organic composting facilities.

(click chart to enlarge)

Starbucks response, “composting just isn’t being done on a global scale” …yet. Why be a leader when you can adopt a let’s wait see policy. Does this fit with Starbucks claims that they have a commitment to “understand environmental issues, to strive to buy, sell and use environmentally-friendly products, and to instill environmental responsibility as a corporate value”?

Hanna goes on to say that the company hopes to increase the number of Bring Your Own Cup (BYOC) customers tenfold by 2010. But he wasn’t ready to share the company’s strategy to make this happen. Sounds a little like a political stump speech.

Instead of platitudes, how about action? There’s no question that a reusable cup is best. Starbucks should:

  • Support the Sustainability is Sexy campaign, an environmental organization determined to reduce the negative environmental impact on our planet caused by disposable coffee cups.
  • How about avoiding the whole to go cup issue by have their employees ask one simple question every time someone orders – “Is that for here or to go?”
  • Switch to a fully renewable and compostable paper cup for its beverages.
  • Turn off the water.
  • Stop the greenwashing and the hypocrisy.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Thanks for this post. I run a company called StalkMarket, which manufactures a whole line of Earth friendly disposable food service items. As you can imagine, we’ve given this subject a lot of consideration.
    >
    > First off, you are absolutely right that the impact of disposable paper coffee cups is a huge problem. The numbers are staggering. The unnecessary consumption of trees is a problem you address. However you did not point out something we see as an even bigger problem – the fact that most disposable paper coffee cups are coated with a thin plastic film. This film prevents the cup from leaking. Unfortunately it also prevents them from decomposing in a timely manner. This was the driving force behind our decision to develop the line of eco friendly hot cups that we introduced earlier this year.
    >
    > StalkMarket’s solution is to coat paper cups (made from pulp that is certified by the Forrest Stewardship Council) with a PLA coating instead of plastic. This makes them both biodegradable and compostable. I should also mention that both the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Tullys coffee cups you refer to in this piece are also made with PLA coated paper. We, along with other manufacturers, do offer clear cups that are made entirely of PLA, but they are not well suited to hot coffee drinks.
    >
    > You also mention that Starbucks is currently using cups containing 10% PCF content. The FDA has some pretty strict guidelines about using PCF for food service items, which is almost certainly why such a small percentage of PCF is found in these cups. The FDA also requires that disposables made with PCF materials employ a barrier to protect the user from contact with any contaminants that might survive the recycling process. You’ve probably already guessed that the material used for this barrier is plastic.
    >
    > One of the most frustrating things to read about in this piece is Starbuck’s take on composting. Our products and others like them will, in fact, break down in a landfill. However, they are really designed to be composted. The Starbucks spokesman is correct – commercial composting is far from being done on a global scale. It is, however, gaining traction in the United States. The only thing that will help hasten a more widespread adoption of commercial composting is if big companies such as Starbucks help drive the demand. Starbucks operates in plenty of regions where commercial composting is available. Taking full advantage of compostable disposables where possible would have a much more positive impact on the environment than the token gesture of offering 10% PCF cups that will still sit in landfills for decades.
    >
    > When you get a minute, you might want to check out the StalkMarket blog at http//blog.stalkmarketproducts.com. It frequently touches on issues like this and may be of interest.
    >
    > Thanks.
    >
    > Buzz
    > http://www.stalkmarketproducts.com

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