To Get to a Circular Economy We Have to Change Not Just the Cup, but the Culture

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©. Starbucks

Single use plastics drive the linear economy, and it is really hard to bend that into a circle.

TreeHugger has followed the website Triple Pundit (3P) since it started. Its founder, Nick Aster, helped build TreeHugger and managed our technical side for the first three years. Senior 3P editor Mary Mazzoni wrote recently about corporate responsibility and the circular economy and illustrated the post with an image of the new Starbucks cup and sippy lid that they are rolling out.

The circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system." It is based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems
credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

It is a response to the fact that almost all plastic follows a linear pattern, with only 14 percent getting collected for recycling and a tiny 2 percent actually getting truly recycled in a circular loop. Two percent.

In her article, Mazzoni notes that companies are trying to move toward circular packaging. "Advocates and NGOs have long pressured top brands to assume greater responsibility for the single-use items they sell, arguing that it has taken companies far too long to ensure their packaging is reusable or recyclable." She notes that it is not always easy.

As companies move toward greater circularity in packaging, some hard-to-recycle elements are bound to be left behind, as demonstrated by the Great Straw Revolt of 2018: In response to a wave of consumer pressure, a sizable list of companies—including Starbucks and Alaska Airlines—pledged to ditch plastic drinking straws in favor of recyclable or compostable alternatives.
starbucks lid

© Starbucks with new lid

But realistically, getting rid of that straw is not a very big deal. Starbucks now offers this sippy cup, similar to what they have for hot drinks, with a moulded spout in the lid. A fine idea and an improvement, but perhaps reducing the amount of plastic by about five percent. It could be less, given that there is more plastic in that new lid than in the old one. Environmentalists like Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy, all lined up to cheer, saying in a press release:

Starbucks' decision to phase out single-use plastic straws is a shining example of the important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic. With eight million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, we cannot afford to let industry sit on the sidelines, and we are grateful for Starbucks' leadership in this space.

I respectfully disagree. Straws are a very small portion of the plastic entering the ocean, and now Starbucks customers can feel better about themselves and their good work for the environment because they have not taken a straw. It might even generate more plastic waste from people who now feel less guilty.

The problem with the idea of the circular economy is that it becomes really complicated when you are trying to bend what was fundamentally designed as a linear economy. Even Starbucks started circular, pitched as a "third place" – a manager told Fast Company a decade ago: “We want to provide all the comforts of your home and office. You can sit in a nice chair, talk on your phone, look out the window, surf the web... oh, and drink coffee too.” That would be in a nice porcelain mug.

garbage at white house


But linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être. You didn't have waste bins and trash pickup or cup holders in cars or any of this giant ecosystem based on a linear system of single-use packaging.

garbage at Washington Monument

© Win McNamee/Getty Images

It is a complicated dance with many parts; Americans are seeing what happens when parts of it break down and the single-use packaging doesn't get picked up by taxpayers with their subsidy to the packaging industry. It is almost impossible to make it truly circular; that would mean recovering all those cups and recycling them into new cups. It goes against the entire concept of convenience.

Circular economy

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows this complicated diagram of how to build a recyclable plastic doodad, but doesn't really go back to its first two principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
italian coffee shop

Norbert Eder/CC BY 2.0

The only way we are going to do that is to design the linear concept of take-out out of the system, and go back to a truly circular way of living. If you are in a hurry or driving somewhere, drink coffee like an Italian: standing up at a bar, knocking it back quickly.

pumpkin spice latte

pixabay/Public Domain

If you are not in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy the pumpkin spice latte in a comfy chair. Because the only truly circular coffee cup system is going to be one that is washed and reused. Katherine got hit in an earlier post:

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe.

Redesign the entire coffee delivery system to one that is circular from start to finish. Don't just change the cup; change the culture.