Italians Ask Starbucks to Serve Coffee in Reusable Cups

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With Starbucks poised to open its first store on Italian soil this fall, there is concern about the environmental impact of so much coffee-related trash.

Starbucks is set to open its first-ever store in Italy this September. For many, it feels like an incongruous pairing, the American beverage giant setting up shop in the land of the finest espresso. The Italians, known for their emotiveness, are not mincing words in their reactions to Starbucks' announcement.

But for one organization called Comuni Virtuosi ("virtuous municipalities"), the concern is less about the "cat pee" coffee or the "soup bowl"-sized servings, and more about what Starbucks' presence in Milan will do to the environment.

Starbucks is responsible for 4 billion disposable coffee cups going to landfill every year. The company has made promises in the past to come up with a better cup, one that can be recycled more easily, but it has failed to meet deadlines and come up with a final product.

Now Comuni Virtuosi has an alternative suggestion: Why doesn't Starbucks' new location in Milan do as the Italians do and serve their coffee in reusable, washable cups? This practice has served the nation well for decades, so it is entirely logical to continue the tradition.

In a letter addressed to Starbucks' outgoing CEO Howard Schultz and signed by organizations including Greenpeace Italy, Zero Waste Europe, WWF Italia, and the Reloop Platform, Comuni Virtuosi calls on Starbucks to block the flow of waste before it even begins.

"A recycling policy does not prevent, like a reuse strategy, the consumption of raw material; it does not avoid the environmental impacts of disposable packaging, like waste and emissions, and the financial burden of managing waste for local governments."

Serving coffee in reusable cups, as several coffee shops have decided to do in recent months, could resolve this dilemma instantly.

"In Italy we will be able to avoid any kind of corrective action and efforts by starting off on the right foot, by serving drinks in reusable ceramic crockery or in reusable to-go containers."

This is an argument near and dear to my heart, ever since I spent a year in Sardinia and saw how people get their caffeine fix without generating heaps of trash in the process. I even wrote an article in 2016 called "Why we need to start drinking coffee like Italians." There's none of this sipping and chugging on enormous vats of sugary, diluted liquid for hours on end, nor the associated expense. Instead, Italians take a few minutes to stop at a local cafe to down a cappuccino in the morning, chat with friends, and then head to work. Afternoons are for quick espresso shots only -- god forbid you have a milky cappuccino after lunch!

As Comuni Virtuosi reasons, the latte levies and reusable cup incentives, while nice in principle, are not terribly effective, and change will take a very long time at that rate. It's easier to prevent a problem than fix it:

"We believe action has to be taken now, at national and local government levels, and the whole industry must contribute to doing well from scratch, rather than less badly."

I do not have high hopes for Starbucks' response to the letter, since offering drinks exclusively in reusable cups would create an entirely different kind of business model; but who knows, if the company is serious about entering the Italian market with "humility and respect," as it said, then it would do well to pay attention to this request.