Starbucks Coffee Cup Recycling Program

Adam Minter, author of the book Junkyard Planet, recently wrote an article for Bloomberg News Service that appeared in my local paper. The article’s title is: Why Starbucks won’t recycle coffee cups. The gist of the article is Starbucks does not recycle for economic reasons.

The Starbucks Coffee Cup Recycling Program simply costs too much

Let me explain further. In order for cups not to leak extremely hot coffee they are lined with plastic. Prior to recycling the cardboard portion of the cup must be separated from the plastic lining. That’s a lot of work.

But wait. There is a machine that can do the separating. Problem solved, right? Not so simple. It seems the machine needs to process vast amounts of cups in order to be profitable and the total quantity needed is far more than can be gathered economically.

A predicament for the Starbucks Coffee Cup Recycling Program

And that is where Mr. Minter leaves the problem—just can’t do it. Of the 4 billion disposable cups Starbucks sells each year a fair amount, 39%, are recycled. As Mr. Minter says in his book: “Practicality and profits nearly always trump good intentions, condescending or not, in the global scrap business.”

This needs to change. I respectfully submit that relatively soon practicality will enter a new phase where wasting 2.44 billion cups every year will be the impractical thing to do. Starbucks can either be dragged along by this change, or lead the way.

Leading the way looks like rethinking the entire process of delivering coffee to customers.

Idea 1:
Up the ante on Starbucks reusable cup program. Starbucks wants to sell 5% of their beverages in reusable cups by 2015. How about doubling that? While many clients want recyclable cups making a concerted effort for reusable cups will pay off.

Idea 2:
Do a complete redesign of their one-time use cups to make them easy and economical to recycle. For those who think that this would be a costly R&D venture I say yes and no.

The “yes it’s too hard” part is that it will absolutely require a substantial amount of mental and financial capital to re-conceive and redesign single use coffee cups to make them easy to recycle.

The “no it’s not too hard because it will be more than worth it in the end” part is staring them in the face. Whoever figures out how to deliver a hot beverage in a recyclable cup is going to have one heck of a patent. That person or entity would be able to license their technology to a vast amount of coffee and fast food restaurants around the globe. The PR benefits would be enormous and would drive licensing agreements as followers sprinted to catch up.

Starbucks Cup Recycling Program can provide a whole new profit model.

The Starbucks Coffee Cup Recycling Program would in essence be bankrolling an entire new business and revenue stream based on industry knowledge, client preference and environmental need. This new profit model would be a bold move and would give Starbucks PR bragging rights that they would be able to take to the bank.

Mr. Minter is right when he talks about practicality and economics. Soon it will be vital to make the impractical practical by not yielding to conventional wisdom.

About the Author


Jeffrey SchmidtStarbucks Coffee Cup Recycling Program