Starbucks Needs to Up its Game on Reusables, Recycling


We have followed Starbucks’ actions on cup recycling and more sustainable packaging for many years. In some ways, it is a leader in recycling and sustainability efforts on packaging. It is the only major retail coffee company to set specific recycling and materials reduction goals. But due to its continuing failure to meet these goals, and new challenges emerging that link plastic packaging to ocean pollution, As You Sow has filed a shareholder proposal with the company for 2018, asking it to strengthen its efforts on sustainable packaging.

In 2008, Starbucks made several bold commitments: 100% of its beverage cups would be reusable or recyclable by 2012; and later it declared that by 2015, 25% of beverages would be served in reusable containers, and front-of-store recycling bins would be placed in all owned and operated stores. In pursuing the 25% reusables goal, the company had the opportunity to motivate customers to bring in their own reusable coffee mugs, and to motivate employees to promote resuables for both “to go” and “for here” customers. The company pledged it would be “re-establishing glassware or ceramic mugs as our global standard for our customers who enjoy their beverages in our stores.” The company has made some progress efforts on parts of these commitments but fallen far short overall.

Recyclability: Most of the 4 billion paper cups it serves every year still end up in landfills because they are not recyclable due to a plastic coating that requires special processing, so not all paper mills can or want to process the cups.

Cup recycling: Front-of-store recycling is available in “over 50%” of company-owned stores,” according to the company. But in some stores, only plastic cold cups are being recycled. The bottom line is that the company, while making significant efforts, has only reached about half of its stated goal. There’s a lack of infrastructure in many areas to recycle cups; they need to be transported long distances to a mill that will accept them.

Reusables: Most concerning, however, were the results of its reusable container goal. By 2011, the company decided it had set a goal it could not meet and radically retreated from it, dropping it from 25% to 5% of all beverages served. After nine years, just 1.4% of all beverages are served in reusable cups. In response, the company has offered an unacceptably weak alternative of “doubling” this to 2.8% in five years. We have monitored the company’s actions with dismay as it abandoned efforts to record or promote on-site use of reusables, while still discussing it in annual reports. Despite pledging to promote reusable cups for both take out and on-site consumption, it is common knowledge that employees do not routinely offer reusable ceramic mugs and glass tumblers to customers dining on-site, nor is signage commonly provided to promote them.

While these challenges remain unresolved, new challenges have emerged:

· In 2015, a CBC-TV Marketplace undercover investigation found that significant numbers of cups meant to be recycled still ended up in the trash. The company said it would audit all Canadian and U.S. stores and get to the bottom of it. Nearly two years later, no results have been released.

· In the last two years, several new scientific reports have revealed the alarming levels at which plastic trash is entering the world’s oceans. If no actions are taken, there is now projected to be more plastic than fish by weight in oceans by 2015. Straws and coffee lids are among the most common items found during ocean beach cleanups. The company’s green straws contribute to the threat posed by single use plastic to marine animals; it needs to stop using plastic straws. Come next July, it won’t be able to use plastic straws in its home base of Seattle as the city has banned them. (The company recently switched from non-recyclable rigid polystyrene plastic lids to more recyclable polypropylene lids, but these will not degrade if swept into waterways.)

· Its bulk coffee is sold in non-recyclable multi-layer foil bags.

· There’s no indication of recycled PET plastic in its Ethos brand water bottles, even though it is marketed as a socially beneficial product, donating profits to provide clean water in developing countries. Recycled PET is commonly used by leading brands; Pepsi’s Naked Juice brand uses 100% rPET.

· The in-store cup recycling commitment only applies to North America, even though Starbucks operates in 75 countries. This is especially important in countries like China, where the company is opening more than one store every day, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines; three countries where it is believed that the highest amounts of plastic ocean deposition is occurring.

We are bringing this issue to shareholders because we do not see an aggressive, comprehensive response from management on how it will proceed after not meeting its 2015 recycling and reusables goals. Further, we do not see the company moving to engage other challenging aspects of packaging sustainability related to plastic pollution on land and in waterways as noted above. We look forward to continued engagement with Starbucks.