Starbucks Bucking Sustainable Practice: Non-Recyclable Disposable Cups Destroy Forests

Home News Starbucks Bucking Sustainable Practice: Non-Recyclable Disposable Cups Destroy Forests
Starbucks Bucking Sustainable Practice: Non-Recyclable Disposable Cups Destroy Forests

It’s that time of the year again where environmentalists make Starbucks accountable for unsustainable business decisions.

Starbucks has brought out their annual red cup again – but why is it so controversial?

Well, the cups destroy forests and create a huge amount of avoidable trash. Turns out the cups are made from only 10% recyclable paper and can’t be recycled given the amount of effort it would take for for recyclers to separate the materials. So let’s think about this for a moment…

Starbucks serves 4 billion cups per year, which is approximately 8,000 cups per minute. 4 BILLION CUPS!

This many cups weighs around four times what the Brooklyn Bridge does and when laid end-to-end, extends the length to the moon and halfway back. And the production of these single-use cups means more than a million trees are cut down just for the occasion. Yup, all these trees cut down to simply be thrown in the garbage after use.


Starbucks wasn’t always a corporate baddie. In 2008, they initially decided to address this issue way back in 2008. The company acknowledged that the cups were a problem and promised to establish a solution, where they committed to serving the coffee in reusable cups. The goal to achieve this was set to be fulfilled by 2012, however this goal was never achieved and the deadline was pushed to 2015.

What the bleep is taking Starbucks so long?

Three Starbucks cup summits were held, the first in 2009 where the Starbucks vice president of Global Responsibility and Starbuck director of Environmental Impact bought coating manufacturers, recyclers, waste managers and university researchers to Seattle to meet with Starbucks staff and CEO to discuss possible solutions. The conclusions drawn at this meeting made it hopeful that a new recyclable cup was close.

The second cup summit was held in April 2010 where the two day meeting included cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, raw material suppliers and recyclers. The meeting essentially focused on solutions to the challenge of the wide variability in recycling efficiency among commercial and residential recycling programs.

Starbucks store in Seattle.

In September 2011 the third and final Starbucks cup summit was held which accommodated more than 100 packaging industry leaders to discuss solutions for the recyclability of cups and other packaging. Representatives from paper mills, restaurant operators, recyclers and cup manufacturers came together to revise possible solutions. It was found that all the challenges that were bought up, were in fact challenges of business culture and not technical barriers.

All this effort and still nada.

Stand, formerly known as ForestEthics, is an organization that strongly advocates for forest protection and commits to standing for communities and the climate. The group believes diversity, connection and cooperation are the key values to not only taking a stand for trees but to also make campaigners more powerful and resilient. Right now, the organization is aiming to get Starbucks to recommit to a better cup and give them the chance to live up to their promise to do the right thing for their customers. This goal is part of the #BetterCup campaign that was coordinated by Stand to hold Starbucks accountable for not upholding their commitment to make disposable cups 100% recyclable.

The Starbucks cups at the moment are lined on the inside with plastic, allowing the cup to hold liquid. However this plastic coating can block up paper recycling machines, so in result most recycling companies won’t process these cups.

Starbucks #bettercup protest in Seattle.

“580 million red cups in the trash is not the holiday gift that Starbucks customers deserve,” said Jim Ace of “It’s long past time for Starbucks to deliver a better cup that can be recycled.”

Stand is calling Starbucks to recommit to 100% recyclable cups and 25% reusable cups. In 2008 Starbucks set a goal to serve a recyclable cup by 2015 which was not reached and in turn, billions of their cups still go into the garbage. A cup that can be recycled globally can be and should be developed. As for reusable cups, currently Starbucks only serves less than 2% of hot drinks in reusable mugs. The company has tried to offer customers inexpensive reusable cups and incentives for those who bring their own mug.

So why aren’t the new Starbucks cups fully recyclable yet? Because they don’t seem to be willing to make a business case for it. The technology today makes it effortless to manufacture cups out of fast-growing, less destructive, renewable fibers that do not destroy forests. So what’s standing in their way of sustainable practice? Money, surprise surprise.

The coffee and climate connection

According to the United Nations and scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about a fifth of global carbon pollution is due to destruction of forests which makes it the second largest cause of climate disruption after burning fossil fuels. Carbon emissions that come from the paper used for Starbucks’ disposable cups is equivalent to the exhaust from more than 30,000 cars each year. As well as this, the paper cups decomposing in landfills produce immense amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane.

The team at Stand taking a stand against Starbucks in Seattle.

The campaign petition has already received a total of 13,000 signatures but Stand wants to spread the message even further. The group has also made appearances in downtown Seattle on November 10 to protest and increase awareness of Starbucks wasteful operations.

It’s come time for Starbucks to finally stop talking about responsibility and sustainability and start taking action. The goal they set back in 2008 was ambitious yet attainable and can still be achieved today. So let’s call on them and demand a better cup. Better yet, take your own reusable cup and head to their stores to demand the change we wish to see!

Want to put pressure on Starbucks? Add your name to the petition here.

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