Even the best paper mills in the world cannot recycle coffee cups because the plastic lining clogs machinery. Starbucks should stop ignoring this problem.
Starbucks has a very big problem with disposable cups. Every year, the coffee giant distributes more than 4 billion single-use cups to customers needing a caffeine fix, which means that 1 million trees are cut down to provide the paper. Most people think that these cups are recyclable – they’re paper, after all – but that’s not true.
According to Stand.earth, whose latest report examines Starbucks’ empty commitments to developing a better cup, the vast majority of coffee cups ends up in landfills. Why is this?
“In order to be able to hold liquids safely, Starbucks paper cups are lined with a thin layer of 100% oil-based polyethylene plastic made by companies like Dow and Chevron. This plastic lining makes the cups impossible to recycle because it clogs most recycled paper mills’ machinery…
Because of the polyethylene plastic coating, much of this material ends up as a byproduct of the paper-making process and is ultimately sent to the landfill anyway. This is particularly wasteful since paper cups are made from a very high quality paper and, if recycled, could be reused multiple times.”
The report outlines how rare it is to find cup recycling facilities. Only 18 of the largest 100 cities in the United States provide residential pickup of coffee cups for recycling, and only three paper recycling mills in the U.S. (out of 450 in total) can process plastic-coated paper such as cartons and coffee cups. In the United Kingdom, there are only two facilities that can do it, which again means everything else goes to landfill. Even where facilities exist, the process is still fraught. The Seattle Times explains that many of Starbucks’ old cups are shipped to China for recycling as “mixed paper,” only to end up as residue from the recycling process and head to a Chinese landfill instead.
Starbucks is well aware of the problem. Back in 2008, it pledged to develop a 100 percent recyclable, biodegradable cup by 2015, and to get one quarter of customers bringing reusable mugs, but little has changed. For five years, it held “cup summits” and consulted experts from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to come up with a better cup, but then the company officially retreated in 2013, downgrading its goal for reusable mugs to a mere 5 percent. Two years later, a little over 1 percent of customers bring their own mugs.
This problem relates to what I wrote about earlier this week on the topic of single-use disposable plastics. Considering the advanced technology that we enjoy in many areas of life, how is it that we have not yet developed decent biodegradable packaging that doesn’t persist for centuries and wreak environmental havoc? It’s absurd.
Starbucks would prefer that paper recycling mills be retrofitted to accept plastic-lined cups, but as Stand.earth points out, that would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. A cup redesign would be a far simpler, not to mention more responsible, approach. Stand.earth wants Starbucks’ customers to speak out and to pressure the company to prioritize the development of a better cup. Even minor tweaks, such as offering paper straws instead of non-recyclable plastic ones, would make a big difference.
Starbucks’ former director of environmental affairs, Jim Hannah, said, “The cup is our no. 1 environmental liability,” but it could also make the company a number 1 environmental leader. It has the potential to revolutionize the takeout food industry, should it desire to, which remains to be seen. Customer pressure, however, can only help.
You can sign Stand.earth’s petition here.