Starbucks Testing Paper Cup Recycling in NYC - How About More Reusable Ones, Too?

starbucks paper cup photo

When searching for images for this story, every photo I could find of a ceramic Starbucks cup from inside a store, was from a non-US location. Photo: Tom Page/Creative Commons

The disposable versus reusable coffee cup debate well may be the longest running story on TreeHugger, and here's a new and mostly positive spin on it: As GreenBiz reports Starbucks has begun a pilot program in New York City exploring the viability and logistics of recycling its paper coffee cups, which total about 3 billion cups annually company-wide. In the nine-week trial, only the cups themselves, and not the sleeves or lids, are being separated and collected by Starbucks usual recycling hauler, Action Carting. The usual aspects of such a system are being examined: How many cups end up in the trash versus dedicated recycling bins, how can recycling be made more convenient so customers adopt it, can the cups be mixed in with the existing corrugated cardboard pick-up, etc.

Which frankly all sounds good. While people bringing their own reusable coffee mugs has certainly made inroads in the past few years, let's face it, it's unlikely that even 90% of people will ever bring their own mug and even then it would take a long time to get there. For now, paper cups are a fact of life in the US coffee shop and recycling them is better than sending them to the landfill.

I'm Offered a Ceramic Cup in London Starbucks, Why Not NYC?
It's that fact of life part that has always struck me. Why is that a fact of life, at US coffee shops in general, but particularly at US Starbucks? It's not the case in overseas branches, at least not the ones in the UK I've been to. Order a coffee and if you're staying it comes in a ceramic mug. Every independent coffee shop worth its espresso offers you the option of a ceramic cup, but not any of the Starbucks I've been to in the US. And in NYC, they're sometimes literally a stone's throw away from one another.

8 of 10 Starbucks' Cups Leave the Store
Here's a big part of that answer: According to Jim Hanna, Starbucks' director of environmental impact, quoted by GreenBiz, about 80% of Starbucks paper cups leave the stores--which obviously greatly affects how many cups Starbucks uses can be recycled.

Hanna didn't say, and perhaps doesn't know, how many people start their Venti Latte in-store, sit a while, and then take it with them because that's just a seriously large portion of coffee, but that'd be interesting to know. Especially since customer behavior is such a big part of this.

I wonder if more than Italian-sounding names could ever be adopted in a Starbucks? What about people adopting the Italian custom of ordering their caffè and then standing around drinking it from small ceramic cups, rather than dashing to the street as quickly as possible, gulping it down and then disposing of the cup one block later into a likely overflowing trash can?

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More on Paper Versus Reusable Cups:
Make That Coffee Cup Porcelain, Not Paper
Are Ceramic Cups Greener Than Disposables?
Starbucks Shareholders Reject Recycling Initiative

Starbucks Testing Paper Cup Recycling in NYC - How About More Reusable Ones, Too?
The disposable versus reusable coffee cup debate well may be the longest

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