Starbucks Needs More Than a $1 Reusable Cup to Boost Recycling

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The $1 Starbucks Reusable Cup

Last week media outlets were abuzz with Starbucks’ announcement, as promised, that its company-owned stores will sell reusable cups for $1 in order to boost recycling. Since 1985, the Seattle-based coffee giant has offered customers a discount when they bring in their own reusable cups. But the 10 cent discount has hardly been enough of an incentive to encourage consumers to bring their own cup and end the mounting waste that their iconic white cups continue to generate.

In 2011, Starbucks estimated its customers brought in their own cups 34 million times, a 30 percent increase from 2009. That’s the good news: the more inconvenient fact is that means only one in 50 Starbucks customers (two percent) bothered to bring in a reusable cup. Back in 2008, Starbucks revealed a strategy to serve 25 percent of its drinks in reusable cups by 2015; but that goal proved to be so elusive that the company downsized that goal to five percent. Nudging consumers to kick the disposable cup habit will be a tough task, even with the offer of a reusable $1 cup.

Starbucks has attempted similar tactics before. In fact, last month, Starbucks had a $30 reusable tumbler on sale that promised free coffee for all of January 2013. There were a few issues, despite all the buzz on the coupon and mommy blogger sites: first the price; next, the tumbler was hideous; finally, there was some dubious math–supposedly this was a “$70 value.” Consumers, at least in my neighborhood, responded in kind; those tumblers hit the clearance table pretty quickly–in fact I think there are still a few there.

And like many reusable cup announcements, the hype does not result in follow up. Last summer in Europe, McDonald’s revealed that it would give away some chic reusable coffee cups designed by Patrick Norguet. But there is no word, however, whether these cups made any dent in McDonald’s coffee cup waste across the pond. Even Mr. Norguet has been silent.

Let’s just cut to the chase: consumers (like me) who bring in their cup like a dutiful Boy Scout do so because of their desire to curb waste, not because they save a dime. And that dime is not enough of an incentive to the other 98 percent. For example, let’s take a look at those 5 cent per bag discounts at Whole Foods or Target if you bring in your own reusable sacks. How many times has the cashier forgotten to give you that pesky discount–and how many times could you be troubled to remind them? And the problem is not just with consumers: on its Responsibility portal, Starbucks “advocates” for an improved recycling infrastructure for its cups. In other words, Starbucks infers that by reducing that annoying double-cupping it has done enough on this front; let the municipalities deal with the waste and absolve the company of any responsibility.

Starbucks could do more and really up the ante. Offer more than a dime discount. Train its employees to remind its guests that coffee tastes better in a ceramic cup, and offer one if they are staying in the store to imbibe in their beverages–and offer that discount. For this feel-good company that offers such great vibes (to the point of near creepiness), experiment with do-goodery charitable campaigns and divert that dime or quarter discount to charity. And for its Gold Level Card Holders (which has become a joke because like a Gold-level American Express card, these are easy to score), offer those more frequent customers additional “benefits” for walking in with those reusable cups. A more aggressive and experimental recycling approach by Starbucks corporate, better training of its employees and most of all, pressing consumers to change their ways, are all necessary for Starbucks to reverse the embarrassing amount of waste the company generates.

As it stands, the $1 reusable cup probably will not make much of a difference–that 26 percent boost in reusable cup usage, as quoted in the LA Times, during its pilot testing in the Pacific Northwest is telling. In fact, the pledge to “rinse out the cup” as if this was some sort of service borders on silliness–Starbucks baristas do so anyway, including sanitizing my hot pink 1990 edition of the Fresno State Country Store cup (which is probably a BPA leakage cesspit, but that’s another story).

The upshot is that Starbucks already stands out for offering health insurance to its workers and for transforming the coffee culture in the U.S. Now it is time to ramp up its corporate social responsibility agenda, take action, and save money on waste diversion.

Starbucks could also tout this move on its media site; this announcement did not make the cut with a new steel cut oatmeal breakfast, the partnership with Square or new stores in Vietnam.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Image credit: Starbucks

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

7 responses

  1. Great story!

    I wonder what the impact would be if instead of “giving” people a discount of 10 cents for using their own cup, they “charged” people 10 cents for not using their own cup? Alameda County just instituted a 10 cent charge for paper grocery bags at all stores in the county and already it appears to have had an enormous impact on people’s habits.

    1. That’s garbage. I’m already paying for the overpriced coffee that should come in a cup. What are they going to do, pour it into my mouth or on my hands?

  2. Re-using your coffee cup is a great first step, but what about re-using your water bottle to avoid clogging landfills with BPA? You can get a sleek water bottle customized with your own photos, text and charity you love at…the price is right, and the charity you choose gets 20% of proceeds!

  3. good to see drink co’s doing something and they need to keep going. A far cry from the likes of coca cola that fight incentive based recycling schemes (e.g. 10cent bottle bills or deposits) the world over… the old anti-sustainability corporates are alive and well

  4. They should start charging $0.10 for disposable cups like they do in grocery stores with the bags. That will get some people to start using reusable cups. Once it becomes a custom, everybody will do it. For me it’s about going to and finding the nearest Starbucks and enjoying my cup of coffee in the coffee shop. After I go to work or whatever, I’m not thinking about bringing a cup with me. But I could just leave one in my car or something.

  5. Supposedly Starbucks has “for here” cups, but I didn’t know until I read it on their site. The site says you have to ask for a ceramic mug if you’re having it “for here.” So why don’t they just have the employees ask you if you’re taking it to go? Or offer the ceramic mug? It seems somewhat hypocritical to be doing all this work trying to get people to stop wasting cups, but not even try the simple stuff.

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