Starbucks: Trying To Be The No Impact Company

In the book No Impact Man, author Colin Beavan tries to live a year in New York City without having an impact on the environment. In the first stage of his project he saves all of his trash for a week and realizes that not only is much of it packaging for take-out meals, but the amount of time he actually uses that packaging is mere minutes before it gets tossed. Meanwhile landfills everywhere are filling up with that cardboard and paper.

Starbucks is wrestling with the same problem. Specifically, the coffee giant can’t figure out what to do about its disposable paper cups. As cool as it might seem to sit in a Starbucks café and sip a latte from a porcelain mug, in fact 80 percent of drinks customers buy go out the door in molded paper. About 3 billion of the nation’s 200 billion-plus paper cups thrown into dumps each year are Starbucks’ cups.

For a company that has built much of its reputation on its concern for the environment and corporate social responsibility, it’s a maddening problem. Starbucks’ cups are about as visible a brand item as the green logo that’s stamped on them. The company says disposing of the cups is the top environmental concern of its customers. The angst over the problem has reached the highest levels of the company. At the 2008 annual meeting, CEO Howard Schultz pledged that by 2012 100 percent of Starbucks cups would be recyclable.

That’s easier said than done. In fact, just as Beavan and his wife and daughter, found that it’s possible but really difficult to live a year without electricity, Starbucks’ cups problem is showing that corporate sustainability is sometimes easier said than done. Starbucks may be committed to Schultz’s pledge, but the recycling industry is not. Most recyclers won’t accept paper coffee cups because of their plastic or wax lining, which makes them watertight. The cups would need to be sorted out from other paper, which runs up costs. The cups also can’t be mixed with other papers such as newspaper or cardboard. And paper mills won’t invest in paper cup pulpers because of doubts they’ll be able to purchase a large enough volume of cups at a low enough cost to make it worth their effort.

So Starbucks continues to wrestle with the problem. The company sells tumblers and offers a ten-cent rebate to customers who bring their own cup. A cup design competition was held and the entries included an inflatable thermal mug and a wafer cup that customers could eat after drinking their coffee.

Last April Starbucks held a two-day Cup Summit at the MIT Media Lab with nearly 100 attendees, most from outside the company and including their major competitors such as Tim Hortons, Dunkin’ Donuts, Green Mountain, and McDonald’s. The great value to their commitment is that those companies have the resources to resolve the confounding cups and their effort will clear the way for smaller firms with the same desires but without the wherewithal.

Indeed, the problem of disposable coffee cups, like that of disposable diapers, will take a group effort to resolve. But that’s a point that Beavan, who brought a glass jar to his local coffee barista during his year of living eco-effectively, makes through his effort. One guy, like one company, won’t a difference. Many people and many companies will.