Starbucks has very proudly announced the completion of a pilot project where they have proven that paper cups can be recycled into new paper cups. They call it a breakthrough in their "goal of ensuring 100 percent of its cups are reusable or recyclable by 2015"
In a press release they say:
"This innovation represents an important milestone in our journey," said Jim Hanna, Starbucks director of Environmental Impact. "We still have a lot of work to do to reach our 2015 goal, but we're now in a much stronger position to build momentum across the recycling industry. Our next step is to test this concept in a major city, which we plan to do in collaboration with International Paper and Mississippi River in 2011."
But really, this raises more questions than it answers.
Paper cups are all about convenience; you buy your coffee and you throw away your cup when you are done. International Paper has documented the experiment and learned some lessons, including that customers can't just throw their cup anywhere, but have to do some work:
Consumers must be willing to participate.
Consumers must follow the required disposal instructions: no lid, sleeves, straw, food, etc.
Essentially, consumers have to forgo a bit of convenience and dispose of their cups properly. Like in the store or bringing them back to the store.
Over the past year, Starbucks has introduced front-of-store cup collection in Toronto and Seattle, where its cups can be recycled, and in San Francisco, where its cups can be composted.
But the cups that go out the door- where do they go? What percentage does Starbucks actually capture? In Toronto, where they do recycle cups, 365 million of them still end up in the garbage every year. The percentage that actually gets recycled is probably very small.
Then, let's look at the process that Starbucks and International Paper have gone through in this demonstration project to show that cup-to-cup recycling can be done.
all images credit International Paper from their powerpoint presentation here
First they have to collect them all, and take them to their post-consumer recycled fiber plant at Natchez, Mississippi.
Pulp the cups with a lot of water;
deink them and bleach them; then the pulp comes off the machine in sheets.
After inspection and testing to ensure that the post consumer fiber is food grade, it is stored and then shipped to International Paper's Texarkana Mill in Queen City, Texas.
There, they add water again and turn it back into pulp;
They process it again, put it into the paper machine and turn it into cupstock.
Then they load it into a transport trailer and haul it all to International paper's Kenton Plant in Kenton, Ohio;
Where they turn it back into a paper cup, "closing the loop."
Really, Starbucks and International Paper deserve credit for trying this. But what is the point? From collection to transport to pulping to drying to transport to repulping to making paper to transport to making cups, how much water was used? How much fuel to transport and heat? Can you really call this "viable?"
All so we can feel a little bit better because we are too damn lazy to carry a refillable cup or they are too damn lazy to supply and wash a china mug?
Lets get real, and just admit that the only really sustainable solution is a washable and reusable cup. Everything else is just so much feelgood window dressing.