Starbucks and Recycling: Where Are Your White Paper Cups Really Going?

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Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) does a lot of things right, but it isn’t the best at recycling — that surprises a lot of onlookers, considering the coffee chain sells 4 billion disposable cups a year. In 2008, the company announced that by 2015, it would offer recycling at all company-operated branches, but Bloomberg reported on Monday that Starbucks said in its 2013 Global Responsibility Report last week that it wasn’t going to meet its recycling goals in 2015, if ever. Five years into its program, Starbucks has only been able to implement customer recycling at 39 percent of its company-operated stores.

Starbucks has gold-plated recycling bins in many of its stores, but it hasn’t been adamant about the expansion and use of them, because it doesn’t wholly believe the cups can be economically recycled. Thus, the profit motive simply is not there. Bloomberg reports that the coffee chain’s cups are lined with plastic to keep them from leaking, so in order to recycle, that plastic would need to be removed before the cups can be transformed into new paper. Even though technology exists to remove that lining, recyclers are typically only willing to enlist that machinery if they are supplied with enough used cups to justify running the process on a regular basis.

And as it turns out, Starbucks customers actually don’t throw away enough cups to make the recycling efforts worth it for the chain. In 2010, according to Bloomberg, Starbucks ran a pilot program in which it collected three tons of cups from 170 Toronto-area stores and sent them for recycling in the U.S., but the volume actually only amounted to a sliver of a percentage of the 51.5 million tons of recyclable paper and cardboard recovered in the U.S. that year.

So even though recycling Starbucks cups may not make a significantly big difference, the chain does has to be careful and keep its public image in mind. With a typically affluent, eco-conscious consumer base on its hands, the company can’t make the mistake of coming off as apathetic about the environment.

That’s why Starbucks executives have been sure to tout the white iconic cups as “renewable,” even if it’s more of a project worth pursuing for PR than anything. John Mulcahy, the vice president of strategy and category effectiveness at Georgia-Pacific LLC, agrees that Starbucks’s paper cups aren’t worth much to the company’s recycling efforts. He told The Boston Globe in 2011 that the paper in all the Starbucks cups used in a year amounts to less than a week’s worth of production at one of his company’s paper mills, according to Bloomberg.

So what should Starbucks do — continue its modest recycling efforts or give up entirely? Some experts say the latter. Bloomberg reports that the company might be better off pulling back on its recycling and explaining to its customers why it has done so, as that would help them better understand the process of recycling and why it is important to stop mindlessly throwing away paper cups without considering a reusable one.

In 2008, Starbucks set a goal of serving 25 percent of all beverages in personal, reusable tumblers by 2015, but in 2011, it served just 1.9 percent in personal tumblers, and lowered the 2015 goal to 5 percent. Thus far, customers have shown a disinterest in reusable tumblers, but some experts believe that if consumers can be made to understand understand why Starbucks had to pull back on its recycling efforts, they might stop buying and throwing away so many paper cups in the first place.