If Starbucks is to achieve its bold goal of ensuring that each and every one of the 4 billion cups its consumers use every year is recyclable or reusable by 2015, it's going to take help from other retailers, including competitors, and especially consumers. That was one of the takeaways from a webinar held last week by the coffee behemoth that shed light on its cup recycling ambitions.
Since 2009, Starbucks has implemented recycling programs in 18 markets, established partnerships with several municipalities and concluded three recycling pilots. The company also wrapped up another project late last year with International Paper that demonstrated that its ubiquitous paper cups can indeed be recycled into new ones.
Last week's webinar, held as part of the company's third "Cup Summit" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, featured a panel that included representatives from all corners of the cup supply chain that highlighted how scale and cooperation will be critical in realizing Starbucks' aspirations.
"Yeah, there's 4 billion Starbucks paper cups out there every year that we generate, but that's not a lot to a paper company, and the desire and need for scale is what we're really talking about is the most important aspect here," said Starbucks Director of Environmental Impact Jim Hanna, who moderated the panel.
Despite the mounds of paper cups Starbucks produces every year, paper company Georgia-Pacific could process all of them in four days at its Green Bay, Wisconsin mill, said Hanna, who also noted that the company has a 100-percent recycling volume target for all its cups by 2015.
To get the needed scale, according to Hanna, Starbucks will need to work with other companies, including competitors such as Canada's ubiquitous coffee-and-donut chain Tim Hortons, which initiated a similar cup recycling project in 2008 in Toronto.
According to Tim Hortons Environmental Affairs Manager Carol Patterson, who was present on the panel, the company worked with other retailers in the area to build the needed volume for their successful cup recycling initiative.
"So if you sort of take that as a microcosm of what could be if we collaborated and ensured that all retailers and all waste industries were taking the materials, [it's] a perfect example of how collaboration could work to build volume and to have a marketable product," she said.
As part of the project, according to Patterson, Tim Hortons actively engaged their employees while making trash and recycling bins easy to use for customers.
Customers, according to members of the panel, will be an important piece of making this all work because if the cups are contaminated they'll be harder to market.
Joe Burke, Action Carting Environmental Services director of sales and panelist, said his company, which provides recycling services to Starbucks, could handle some contamination, but it would best if customers would just get rid of any fluid before recycling the cup.
Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT who appeared on the panel, said that this will require a shift in consumer thinking and added that personalizing each party's role in the project will help make it successful.
"If I know that emptying out my cup — which takes all of one second — will make Joe's business successful, which will make the recycling thing work, then, boom, I'm now paying attention to part of the system that I was ignoring before," said Senge.
However, the big obstacle, said Hanna, is the lack of infrastructure for consumers in some parts of the country to recycle their cups.
"It's a tough goal and we only have a few years left to reach that goal," said Hanna, who remains optimistic.
Other topics discussed by the panel included Starbucks' efforts to encourage customers to bring in their own mugs. Currently, Starbucks will take 10 cents off the price of a beverage served in a mug or tumbler brought in by a customer. However, Hanna noted that this incentive has had limited success. Upping the discount significantly, he said, would quickly turn Starbucks into a nonprofit company.
Also brought up was Starbucks' decision to use No. 5 plastic, polypropelene, for its cold cups over the more commonly recyclable plastics No. 1 and No. 2.
"The reason we did that is we look at the total environmental footprint of our cups from cradle to grave, you know, manufacturing and raw material and disposals and all these things, and what we were discovering was on the manufacturing side, by switching to polypropylene, we significantly reduced the carbon footprint of those cups by over 45 percent from the previous material," he said.