Starbucks Deserves Credit for Progress on Recycling But there’s Room for Improvement

By Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director, As You Sow

Ever seen a recycling bin at a Starbucks?  Where do you think 3 billion paper cups go every year?  That’s right – straight to the landfill or incinerator.  But we hope that’s about to change as Starbucks gears up to make good on a promise to offer in-store recycling of paper and plastic beverage cups at 7,500 company-owned stores by the end of 2015.

Throwing away cups, bottles and cans is an enormous waste of resources as we enter an age of resource and carbon constraints.  As You Sow has spent a decade asking why big beverage companies can’t do the most basic things when it comes to the environment. They hire consultants to construct elaborate sustainability policies but can’t recycle their packaging. It’s somebody else’s problem. 

Starbucks has shown some leadership by using 10% recycled content in the 3 billion paper coffee cups it uses in the U.S. each year. However, it lacks goals for recycling and recycled content for the plastic containers its chilled drinks are served in, as well as for its ready-to-drink beverage containers – Ethos plastic water bottles, Frappuccino glass bottles and Double Shot espresso in cans.

We had conversations with Starbucks last fall. The company’s commitment was to make their cups recyclable in form by 2012 and to offer in-store recycling at as many of its 7,500 company-owned stores as could develop recycling services by 2015.  We asked why they couldn’t commit to collecting a specific amount of cups by a certain date. They said it was because the rate of recycling would depend on developing actual markets where that would ensure the cups actually got be recycled.  Fair enough, but we still pressed for a specific numerical goal; without it, its unlikely there would be a laser focus on assembling the necessary resources to really get the job done.

When Coca-Cola told us they would recycle 50% of their bottles and cans by 2015, they didn’t say it would depend on whether there was a market for it. They rolled up their sleeves and went out and helped create the market by investing in recycling plants and directly entering recycled plastic markets.

In the absence of the company’s commitment to a specific goal, we moved ahead with a shareholder proposal asking Starbucks to set recycled content and container recovery goals for all its cups, bottles and cans. At the annual meeting in March, free Starbucks beverages were offered to all in the ornate Seattle Opera House– in paper cups.  Nice touch. With recycling on the proxy statement, wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to pull some mugs out of storage?  Ironically, on that same day PepsiCo, which bottles Starbucks’ Ethos water, made a commitment to As You Sow to recycle 50% of their bottles and cans by 2018.  They didn’t say “market willing,” they just said they would do it.

Our proposal got the support of 11% of shareholders– not bad considering it faced the opposition of management and was not supported major proxy advisory firms.  This vote sent a powerful message to the company.  When it issued its new Shared Planet CSR report, it acknowledged its recycling policies “Need Improvement.”

Following the meeting and a fair amount of press coverage, we have sensed a new, more urgent tone.  The company seems less equivocal – more certain it can make this happen.   It is a formidable task. Paper cup recycling markets may not exist in many areas and the company appears to now be committed to building such markets.  “Cups that are collected as part of our commitment to provide in-store recycling will all be recycled,” Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks, recently told me. Our U.S. recycling infrastructure needs drastic improvement so that recyclable containers actually get recycled. Starbucks will need to work hard with local governments and commercial recyclers to find recycling markets for all its paper and plastic cups.

This issue has taken on more significance with concerns over climate change and the great garbage dump floating in the Pacific.  Recycling more bottles and cans means less reliance on petroleum for plastic bottles, and aluminum for cans, resulting in smaller corporate carbon footprints.  If all beverage containers in the U.S.  were recycled, 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided.

Starbucks’ commitment is important for two other reasons. Paper cups have not been covered by container deposit legislation and are routinely tossed into the general waste stream.  It sends an important signal for a major company to expand the definition of producer responsibility to another product category, paper cups – taking it beyond previous commitments by other beverage companies to glass, metal and plastic containers.  Further, it gives paper and polypropylene cups potential market value they did not have before, which is crucial in developing cost effective recycling systems, especially in smaller cities.

We will continue to engage Starbucks.  A lingering concern is lack of recycled content in its plastic Ethos water bottles. The company puts this “social” brand at risk by marketing it with no recycled content or strategy for recovery of empty bottles. It also needs to set post-consumer collection goals for Frappucino bottles and DoubleShot cans.  If Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle Waters can commit to As You Sow to recycle half of the bottles and cans they sell, why can’t Starbucks?


Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at As You Sow, uses shareholder advocacy to press publicly traded companies to become better corporate citizens. He has pursued successful dialogue on environmental initiatives at Apple, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, Nestlé Waters NA, and PepsiCo. The initiative he leads on beverage container recycling won the 2010 California Stewardship Bow and Arrow Award for Coalition Building.

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