Starbucks Promises, Yet Again, to Make a Recyclable Coffee Cup

CC BY 2.0. Daniel Spils -- "High class trash, or Litterbucks," as the photographer humorously called it

We've heard it before. This is the third such promise in 10 years, and so far nothing has materialized. is a forest activist group based in Washington state that has loudly protested Starbucks' use of non-recyclable coffee cups. I've written about their 'cup monster' protests and petitions, and now they've pulled off yet another interesting stunt -- placing tracking devices inside coffee cups that were tossed in recycling bins to see where they ended up.

The Denver Post reports:

"'s team sprayed foam insulation into cups to hold their beacons — which cost about $100 each — in place. They tracked cups thrown into bins marked 'recycle' at several Starbucks around the city. (Notices on the recycle bins say 'no paper cups or lids' can be processed.) The trackers then used smartphones to monitor data received from six of their beacons, including one placed on a cup at a Starbucks on East 18th Avenue. It moved to a recycling center first, then to a landfill."

While the bins did say they couldn't process paper cups or lids, it does seem rather misleading for a coffee shop to have recycling bins on the premises if they cannot accept their most common form of packaging. One can't help but wonder if it's a form of greenwashing, a way of looking environmentally responsible, without really being it. In the video at the bottom of this article, you'll note that a staff member directs one of the team to put her cup in the recycling bin, and no doubt many customers assume their cups are being recycled, without understanding how difficult that really is.

map of Denver landfills capture

The resulting report and video (shown below) may have influenced Starbucks to announce a new commitment to introducing a fully recyclable paper cup within the next three years, just in time for its Annual General Meeting, which takes place today, March 21. acknowledges the commitment, saying it puts the company "on the right side of history for forests and climate," but points out that it's the third such commitment the company has made in a decade:

"In 2008, Starbucks pledged to make a 100% recyclable paper cup and sell 25% of drinks in reusable cups by 2015. Ten years later, Starbucks has failed to deliver on either of those pledges."

Even a spokesperson for Starbucks sounds skeptical, calling the quest for a recyclable cup a "moon shot for sustainability" -- hardly the positive, confident attitude one would hope to hear from the coffee chain. There was no mention of banning the iconic plastic straws (found in every city drain), stir sticks, or plastic cups for cold drinks.

One thing that irritated me in Starbucks' press release about its newest commitment was its description of the AGM as being "zero waste", featuring fully recyclable sample cups for 3,000 attendees made from 10 percent recycled material: "Once the cups are used, they’ll be disposed of in recycling bins where the cups, already recycled once, can find new life once again."

Clearly Starbucks and I have very different ideas of what zero waste consists of -- and tossing thousands of paper cups in a recycling bin does not classify as zero waste in my eyes. But therein lies a major issue in this entire discussion: recycling is not a solution to waste. Relatively little of our recycling ends up being given "new life," to use Starbucks' own airy-fairy description, and the majority goes to landfill, even when the recycling facilities exist.

So, the conversation about sustainability should really revolve around how to get away from using disposables of any kind, recyclable or not, and questioning the take-out coffee culture that is driving it. Since Starbucks largely pioneered this culture, it has a responsibility to change things around, now that we know this isn't working. Sign a petition to add your voice here.

A Better Cup from Survival Media Agency on Vimeo.