Each year, an estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups are distributed globally and though Starbucks cups only account for an estimated 1 percent of that total, the company is not leaving the problem-solving to others.
“Our store partners proudly pour sustainably sourced coffee in our 28,000 locations around the world, but everyone wants to take our ability to serve it sustainably to the next level,” says Colleen Chapman, vice president of Starbucks global social impact overseeing sustainability. “No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it’s just not moving fast enough. So today, we are declaring a moon shot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition.”
Starting Tuesday, Starbucks is committing $10 million in partnership with Closed Loop Partners and its Center for the Circular Economy to establish a groundbreaking consortium to launch the NextGen Cup Challenge. This is the first step in the development of a global end-to-end solution that would allow cups around the world to be diverted from landfills and composted or given a second life as another cup, napkin or even a chair—anything that can use recycled material.
Through the NextGen Cup Challenge, the consortium will award accelerator grants to entrepreneurs working on ideas that could lead to the development of more sustainable cup solutions and, invite industry participation and partnership on the way to identifying a global solution.
"Through this partnership, the Challenge will enable leading innovators and entrepreneurs with financial, technical, and expert resources to fast-track global solutions, help get those solutions to shelf, through the recovery system and back into the supply chain" says Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners.
The need to innovate is recognized industry-wide and by leading nonprofits—and consortium members—including World Wildlife Fund and its Cascading Materials Vision.
“Through this collaboration, Starbucks and the Closed Loop Partners are undertaking complex issues in the sourcing and recovery of materials, looking to protect the environment and future wealth of our natural resources. World Wildlife Fund is excited to support and participate in comprehensive solutions that help tackle the world’s greatest challenges,” says Erin Simon, director of sustainability research & development and material science at World Wildlife Fund.
Throughout development, the solution will be open source so others can benefit and innovate on the path towards the development of recyclable and compostable cups around the world.
“We want to make sure this technology is available to everyone because it’s the right thing to do,” says Andy Corlett, director of packaging R&D for Starbucks. “The idea of environmental sustainability in packaging is not just a Starbucks issue. It’s a global issue. Anything that gets us closer to that goal is not something we want to keep to ourselves.”
Continued Quest for a Greener Cup
As the NextGen Challenge kicks off, internal research continues as Starbucks Research and Development team initiates a trial of a new bio-liner, made partially from plant-based materials for its paper cup. The internal trial, expected to take six months, will test not only for environmental impact, but whether the cup’s liner can stand up to stringent safety requirements and quality standards when filled with a hot liquid. This trial marks the 13th internal test of its kind in the last year alone as part of continued efforts to deliver on its goal for a Greener Cup.
Industry leaders such as Lynn M. Dyer, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute, recognize the challenges that come with striving to improve on the recyclability of cups.
"Starbucks is a leader in the ongoing work to make a recyclable paper cup a reality. However, this takes a great deal of time and effort, and certainly not something that can be done alone or by simply designing a new cup," says Dyer. “The truth is no cup is recyclable until it is widely accepted by communities, recycling facilities and paper mills. We have been fortunate to have Starbucks engagement and partnership in working on this challenge, and we look forward to continued collaboration towards a truly recyclable cup.”
Starbucks paper cups are currently manufactured with 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, the first prototype of its kind to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006. The inside of the cups is coated with a thin liner designed to meet quality and safety standards, including preventing leaks. The cups are recyclable in many municipalities with the appropriate infrastructure, including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Starbucks is pushing for broader acceptance, and the use of a plant-based liner could help more municipal recycling and composting facilities process used cups, keeping them from the landfill.
“Developing a plant-based liner that stands up to hot liquids and is commercially viable is incredibly hard, but we believe the solution is out there, not just for cups but for other exciting applications, like making straws greener, in the future,” says Rebecca Zimmer, director of global environmental impact.
A call for consistency in nationwide recycling policies
Starbucks has been a leading national retailer in advocating for increased access to recycling programs throughout the country.
The current patchwork approach with varying regulations city by city makes it challenging and confusing for customers to know where and when to recycle or compost their cup.
In conjunction with the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute, Starbucks is advocating for model legislation and best practices to make access more widely available, ensuring consistency and reducing confusion about what materials are recyclable or compostable.
“The National League of Cities is eager to work with Starbucks and other leaders to create a playbook and implement proven practices for sustainable waste management that provide economic benefit and positive environmental impact,” says Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities.
Building off of a green foundation
Last year, Starbucks debuted a newly designed lid for its Nitro Cold Brew Coffee, eliminating the need for a straw. Already available in the more than 1,400 stores where Nitro is served, the company is working to make them available to U.S. and Canada company-operated stores for all cold beverages.
Earlier this year, Starbucks began trialing a 5 pence (about 7 cents) charge on paper cups in the UK, one of the first companies to do so in an effort to encourage use of reusable cups within Starbucks stores. As it has for the past 20 years, Starbucks also offers a discount to customers globally who bring their reusable cups into participating Starbucks stores. In additional to traditional retail merchandise, Starbucks offers a $2 reusable hot cup, nearly identical to its iconic white cup. It will introduce the reusable cold version later this year.
In addition, Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders on March 21 is designed to be a zero-waste event. This year’s meeting will feature a coffee tasting for the 3,000 attendees using small sample cups that are fully recyclable in Seattle and were made using recycled Starbucks cups.
Like all Starbucks cups, the sample cups contain 10 percent recycled material. Once the cups are used, they’ll be disposed of in recycling bins where the cups, already recycled once, can find new life once again.