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Waste Not
Starbucks Is in a Unique Position To Push Consumers To Waste Less. Will It?

Starbucks is one of America’s most iconic brands for many reasons. The company transformed coffee culture and taught U.S. consumers to appreciate better coffee beans and traditional coffee beverages long on the menu in Europe. In doing so the Seattle-based coffee giant not only built a large economic machine, but inspired countless smaller chains and independent shops to open across the U.S. and even the world; as they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

On the environmental and social fronts, Starbucks has offered plenty of leadership. Its focus on procuring ethically sourced coffee and palm oil, and its recent acquisition of a farm in Costa Rica for use as a farming research and development center demonstrate that the company is serious about confronting long-term challenges that coffee growers and workers face in a hyper-competitive and increasingly hotter world. And of course here in the United States, many single mothers, students, small business owners and young professionals have had peace of mind because of the generous health insurance coverage the company offers workers.

But the area in which Starbucks is lagging is where the company can truly lead and transform consumer behavior: the stores’ overwhelming waste.

Let’s start with the paper cups. Sustainability writer Marc Gunther estimates that consumers go through as many as four billion of them annually. True, Starbucks has made progress since the days when it double-cupped its hot drinks — in January, the company introduced a $1 reusable coffee cup and claims it has made progress on recycling on all fronts. By 2015, Starbucks aims to have “front-of-store” recycling at all of its North American stores; in the stores that currently participate, recycling bins are clearly labeled so customers know where the correct places are to place their waste.

But if it were only that simple. In the California city where I live, a few afternoons spent telecommuting in various Starbucks locations tell a different story. Many customers clearly do not pay attention to the individual bins’ labeling, so plastic cups end up in the trash bin while food waste ends up in the recycling bin. True, some shopping centers and office complexes have co-mingled recycling.

Nevertheless, Starbucks’ supposed recycling program is more about metrics and looking responsible to stakeholders than immersing itself in the discussion over waste in a world facing more resource constraints. As several Starbucks employees explained to me (on condition of anonymity), the disposal and eventual recycling of trash from individual locations is out of Starbucks’ control. If a shopping center does not have recycling pickup, then that blue bag of recyclables ends up in the trash. And at another Starbucks location I visited, recycling is only picked up on weekdays — so if the recycling bin becomes full during a busy weekday, the recycling bag is tossed into the waste bin and will end up in a landfill. Starbucks takes little responsibility for its waste, leaving it up to property management companies and municipalities instead.

And Starbucks still has a long road ahead towards changing consumer behavior. As Mr. Gunther pointed out, consumers would be more inclined to use a reusable cup if they were charged an extra 10 cents or so for a paper cup, instead of receiving a discount per Starbucks’ current practice. Starbucks argues such a policy could come across as punishing, but considering how vaunted the brand is among its consumer base, a pilot program experimenting with new tactics to increase recycling would be worth the effort — and help Starbucks put its money where its mouth is.

As for the much-publicized $1 reusable cup, Starbucks employees explained its rollout has made little difference. In fact, one location had the cups for weeks but could not sell them because the lids had not arrived. Now several stores in the area do not even display the cups, which may be just as well: Employees said their quality was so low that at best they lasted only 20 or so fill-ups of piping hot coffee.

Starbucks could also try asking customers the timeless question, “For here or to go?” If the customer requests a drink “for here,” he or she could receive the drink in a mug or glass — or at the minimum, baristas could take an additional step and confirm whether customers want their order in a reusable mug or glass. In fact, I did not even know Starbucks has glasses at their locations until I forgot my reusable cup for a recent iced tea order. In fact, most consumers don’t know, and I suspect many new employees at Starbucks do not realize, that glasses or mugs are available as an option — but they are often an afterthought at many Starbucks locations. And on a busy day, most end up in a sink waiting to be washed.

Which leads to Verismo, Starbucks’ coffee pod machine. Other brands’ plastic pods are already creating mounds of municipal waste, and most companies’ pod recycling programs have been met with skepticism by other sustainability writers. And when it comes to more responsible disposal, Starbucks again punts: The company claims pods are recyclable, and they are — if the paper, metal and plastic components are separated. But Starbucks instructs consumers to “confirm with your local recycling or solid waste authority” (as if any would), and states the pods’ components “may be recyclable.” As for the compostable coffee grounds, the company is silent on what is done to separate them from the pods.

What’s unfortunate about Starbucks’ tepid response is that the company’s brand reputation positions it as an organization that can lead on waste reduction and other sustainability efforts. If it took a more aggressive stance, not only would its brand reputation — and perception among skeptics — improve overall, but such action would also motivate other restaurant and fast-food companies to come up with innovative programs that would help clean up the planet — and in the end, save these companies money or even create new revenue streams.

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