Back in the day Starbucks used to be my favorite place to have a mocha or an Americano practically daily, sometimes even both. I’d sit down and have my coffee in a reusable white ceramic cup, enjoy my time with friends, or be writing and studying. Everytime I’d leave I’d feel good — like leaving a favorite friend’s place after having a great time.
And sometime in the 2010s we parted ways — I became more engaged and committed to the environment, educated myself with facts about the state of our environment, took responsibility for my impact on the planet, and Starbucks just refused to come along. Today, there are practically no stores in the US that you can enjoy a Starbucks coffee in a reusable mug even while dining in. Everything is served in single use plastic or paper waste.
And during this pandemic, just a few days ago, I found myself with a friend standing in a small town Starbucks (other coffee shops were closed), with my reusable cup, only to be refused to take the cup — under the very false, ignorant, and disheartening reason that it was due to the pandemic. Yet this was not the first refusal I had from them around using a reusable cup. Starbucks never filled up reusable cups without creating trash. Not before the pandemic, and not even in Dallas, TX during an Earth X festival. Each time I’d walk away without coffee.
Back when I was a fan, I saw Starbucks as a responsible business, setting trends, representing the hip, outdoorsy, and sophisticated coffee enthusiasts. The hip and outdoorsy usually come with a knowledge of environmental impact and care for nature — which is why, today, I find it puzzling to see Starbucks in highly outdoors oriented towns — from NY to CA. All hikers, skiiers, beachgoers, boaters, fishers, etc sipping their drinks from a single use item soon to be discarded into the environment.
Their logo is a Siren — a Mermaid with two tails. The history of their logo and name is all marine based, and they take pride in being from a port city. It’s like a runaway mermaid forgot her roots. Even their mission statement says:
“ …Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results…”
And yet whenever I go to Starbucks it makes me feel sad. The volume of plastics that are pumped out with each customer — a cup, a lid, a straw… at a minimum, and top it off with a ridiculous product they call a stopper whose only purpose seems to be creating waste.
Here are Starbucks waste facts:
- They use only 10% post consumer recycled materials in their non-recyclable cups — according to their own 2019 sustainability report. Their meek goal is to bring this number up to 20% by 2022.
- 2.8% reusability rate in measured markets — another weak goal is to double their use of reusable cups between 2016 and 2022. (Imagine if they had such a low financial goal — to increase profits by 5% in 6 years…)
- Their infamous strawless lids will only reduce 9% of plastics used with their current lids and straws.
- Starbucks has been providing false promises on making their cups more recyclable at least since 2010 — one clear goal was 100% of their cups being reusable or recyclable by 2015. Currently they seem to have ditched setting a goal for 100% of their cups — instead they’re providing disappointing and very conservative numbers as in the first two bullets above.
- They missed their target to eliminate plastic straws by the end of 2020- and the pandemic is just an easy excuse. Yet, there is nothing in their PR to be found anywhere as far as the transparency goes in their mission statement. Articles posted in September 2020 make it appear like they have eliminated straws and now have the sippy cup lids on all their cold beverages… Based on my visit and then going and watching people walking out of various Starbucks locations along the East Coast this is definitely not the case.
- They use over 2 billion straws and 4 billion cups a year!
- Starbucks invested $10M in partnership with Closed Loop Partners to develop a more recyclable single-use cup. Their target is to have this cup across all stores by 2022 — there have been no updates on the progress of this cup since March 2020.
- They reported an annual revenue of $26 Billion in 2019. 1% of their revenue would be $200 million — leaving the $10 million budget they committed to develop a solution not even a drop in the bucket.
While it’s great to hear that Starbucks is continuously setting some sustainability goal — the expectation is for a green mermaid to be on the forefront in eliminating single-use plastics all together. Given that they’ve been using PR and Marketing on announcing recyclability of their cups since 2010 in 2021 they could be further ahead in how many of their cups are captured and recycled.
They have available solutions — reusable cups that they tested in London’s Gatwick airport — and their Grab your Cup campaign in Manchester as well as their recently announced Circular Cups in the UK. Once again lacking the transparency it is challenging to find any results of these and why Starbucks might have abandoned the campaign or is not looking to implement in other markets like the US and globally.
In Japan, Starbucks has been using the origami coffee — practically producing no waste for a quick brew. A company so committed to sustainability and a pro in marketing is expected to carry over their findings from one market to another — for the good of the planet.
Waste is waste — and especially single use waste — not just plastic — is harming our planet. Today’s recycling processes present their own challenges being so market and area dependent. In place of committing to create another single-use item Starbucks could be looking at implementing, improving, and perfecting reuse programs — like the trial they announced at the Gatwick Airport in 2019. They can introduce practices they have in Asia, specifically in Japan, into other markets — challenging the status quo — and spreading good practices worldwide. They can work together much more efficiently with recycling facilities globally to solve a problem at the root.
Citing the Coronavirus they’ve published that they will not honor reusable cups. Meanwhile, a Greenpeace report with the signatures of 125 international scientists and medical experts vouch that reusables are safe to use during a pandemic. People are still going to restaurants and eating from reusable plates and utensils whether sitting indoors or outdoors. A strong practice in washing and sanitation is a requirement, Covid or not, and prevents the spread of all kinds of bacteria, virus, and disease. A company committed to planet, environment, and community can work together with scientists and non-profits like Greenpeace, to understand how reusables can still work rather than take the easy way. As noted earlier, at least in the US, Starbucks never honored reusable cups without creating waste. They would make the coffee in a single-use cup, and then pour it in from that into your reusable cup which defeated the entire purpose. Every. Single. Time.
Going back to a Starbucks 6 years later, it was still an overall disappointment in the Green Mermaid. Here’s hoping that one of these days she can embrace her roots and get serious about eliminating single use plastics and waste and truly prioritize the environment and her impact through her own values of transparency and not settling for the status-quo.