Starbucks should worry about recyclability, not pretty holiday designs

Starbucks holiday cups 2016
© Starbucks Newsroom

There's nothing festive about generating obscene amounts of non-recyclable waste.

Starbucks has launched its iconic holiday red cup, much to the joy of its coffee-loving fans. Many people were horrified that the red cup did not appear on November 1st, when it usually does, and was replaced temporarily by a green cup meant to symbolize unity at a time of tremendous division within the United States. But yesterday, once again, the red cup made its appearance to great fanfare on social media.

A surprising number of people are thrilled to see it again, especially covered with intricate white drawings of holiday-inspired images, like wreaths and Christmas lights and stags. No doubt this will delight those who protested Starbucks’ use of plain red cups last year, complaining it was anti-Christmas and anti-Christian. (I’m not sure when snowflakes, snowmen, and vague wintry scenes ever become religious symbols, but apparently they are.)

The red cup raves make me sad. How is it that a disposable cup can generate such joy? And it’s not just any disposable cup — it’s a mostly non-recyclable disposable cup, except in a handful of cities! Forest advocacy group Stand wrote in a press release yesterday that, between now and New Year’s, when the flow of red cups will stop, Starbucks will be responsible for 580 million holiday cups going into the trash. (Globally, the chain distributes 8,000 per minute on average.) Because of their plastic lining, Starbucks’ cups are unrecyclable almost everywhere.

Stand held a protest yesterday in front of Seattle’s Westlake Center Starbucks, using a 12-foot-high holiday cup as a prop to symbolize the gross waste. The Stand activists also distributed disposable paper cups to passersby that are 100 percent recyclable, meant to highlight the absurdity of Starbucks continuing to use cups that are not recyclable when there is a perfectly viable alternative out there.

Starbucks cup protest© Stand.Earth

Stand writes:

“In 2008 Starbucks acknowledged that its cups were a problem and pledged to create a solution. The company committed to make its cups recyclable and serve more coffee in reusable cups. They set ambitious goals for 2012 and failed, then pushed the deadline to 2015, made no changes to their cups, then seemed to drop their commitment entirely.”

When I checked Starbucks’ statement on Recycling, Sustainability & Waste Management, the message was ambiguous, as can be expected from corporate greenwashing. Apparently the company is “working with others” toward better solutions, has held three “cup summits”, yet blames landlords and municipal recycling facilities for not being able to recycle their specialized cups. At the same time, however, Starbucks claims to want to “dramatically increase our customers’ use of reusable cups.”

If Starbucks really wanted to practice what it pretends to preach, it could institute a truly recyclable, all-paper cup (such as the reCUP). Surely the hot drinks don’t linger long enough to degrade their quality, which is why Starbucks claims it needs to use plastic lining. (Let’s be honest; their coffee isn’t even great. The drip coffee “will always taste like it was drawn from the last viable vein of a lifetime chain smoker,” as Vox writes.)

The company could offer better incentives for reusables. Imagine if you got $1 off your coffee for bringing your own mug, instead of a pathetic 10 cents. Because, seriously, anybody who’s buying a “triple venti half-sweet non-fat caramel macchiato” doesn't give a hoot about a dime.

Holiday traditions should not give us license to generate obscene amounts of waste, which is precisely what the red cup craze does. Instead, Starbucks needs to hear a different message, besides adoration. It needs to know that it’s not acceptable to continue handing out non-recyclable cups, especially in communities that lack the facilities to do so. It needs to take responsibility for the amount of unnecessary trash its drinks generate, and customers need to do the same. Show some holiday spirit this year — and take your own mug, please.

Tags: Coffee | Drinks | Reusability | Waste

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