Starbucks Will Eliminate Disposable Cups in South Korea by 2025

Customers will get reusable cups that are returned to a contactless kiosk.

Starbucks Coffee, Seoul
Starbucks Coffee in Seoul, South Korea.

Getty Images / Chung Sung-Jun

Starbucks South Korea announced this week that it will eliminate all single-use disposable cups by 2025. Instead, beverages will be served in reusable cups, with customers paying a small deposit that is refunded when they return the cup using a contactless, automated in-store kiosk.

The new business model will launch this summer in select stores in Jeju, an island to the south of the mainland, and then roll out in additional stores across the country over the next four years. A company statement says, "This program helps Starbucks shift from single use to reusable packaging, bringing the company one step closer to its global goal of cutting its landfill waste in half by 2030.​" 

The move is surely linked to South Korea's own changes in environmental policies. In 2018, the use of disposable cups for dine-in customers was banned. Legislation introduced last year, according to The New York Times, "would require fast food and coffee chains to charge refundable deposits for disposable cups to encourage returns and recycling."

That's a clever strategy to get customers thinking about the environmental repercussions of using disposables and hold them accountable in some way. South Korea's environment ministry said it wants to reduce the country's plastic waste by one-fifth by 2025.

John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, says it appears that Starbucks felt some pressure to act in light of these policies that make it harder for companies to continue using single-use plastics. This should be a lesson to the rest of the world, particularly the United States: 

"It is imperative that the United States Congress work as quickly as possible to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and that we join with other countries in developing a global plastics treaty to help spur the same shift toward reuse that we desperately need worldwide. Forward-thinking companies should be taking note and preparing for an end to the era of single-use plastics immediately."

Once national policies become hostile to disposability, companies are forced to come up with new ways of conducting business, and they usually innovate very quickly. If Starbucks can do this in one country, there's no reason why it couldn't be replicated elsewhere. 

Fears over contamination of reusable containers by the COVID-19 virus have been proven baseless, but it's still not a bad idea for a retailer to provide standardized containers and take control of the cleaning and sanitization, as Starbucks will in this case. It eases people's minds and makes for a smoother process overall. 

Starbucks South Korea's announcement is welcome at a time when we desperately need bold initiatives like this one. (Interestingly, it's exactly what a group of Italians asked Starbucks to do in 2018 when it opened its first Italian location in Milan – to serve coffee exclusively in reusable cups.) Considering the coffee chain is responsible for roughly 4 billion coffee cups going to landfills every year and South Korea is its fifth-biggest market, there's potential for some significant impact here if it can press forward globally.