Starbucks Wants You -- To Help It Switch to Eco-Friendly Cups

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

Starbucks (SBUX), a company with $10 billion in sales and 142,000 employees worldwide, apparently needs your help in solving what it calls the "disposable cup waste problem." In an online contest, the coffee chain has issued a plea for creative ideas and will award $20,000 to the best one.

Now let's see. Where might we find the sort of people ideally suited to fixing the problem of coffee cup-stuffed landfills? Oh, I know -- how about the company that goes through 2.7 billion coffee, latte and frappuccino cups a year. Starbucks says it's working on the problem and intends to get its cups 100% recyclable or reusable, but either the coffee-cup problem is vastly more complicated than we ever thought or Starbucks employees are painfully slow workers.

In 2004, the company announced it had achieved the unprecedented milestone of using cups with 10% recycled content. Five and a half years later, we're still stuck at 10%. And the promised evolution to 100% -- that won't be a reality for another five years, Starbucks says, in 2015. Call me crazy, but this is not Mars travel and there's got to be an easier, quicker way to do this.

In fact, there is and we know this because other coffee chains are already using eco-friendly cups. Tully's Coffee, a small Seattle-based chain with 183 U.S. stores, switched to International Paper's (IP) compostable "ecotainer" cup over two years ago. This cup uses a compostable corn-based lining and customers are encouraged to return the cups to Tully's for composting. Starbucks, on the other hand, uses a standard polyethylene liner, rendering them unrecyclable (though many people toss them in the recycle bin anyway).

There are other options too. Green Good manufactures several eco coffee cups, including one with 42% post consumer recycled material. And Georgia Pacific's EcoSmart Insulair cups have 25% recycled fiber.

It's unclear why Starbucks passed on all these in favor of some phantom distant fix. And for a company that professes to care deeply about all the trees it's slaying, they appear to be ignoring an even more obvious solution -- reusable mugs. Starbucks sells travel mugs in its stores for the unfriendly price of $10 and bestows customers who show up mug in hand with a whopping 10 cent beverage discount. If Starbucks really wants to entice customers to reduce waste, let's start the bidding at say, 40 cents. And I've never seen any signage or materials in the stores actually trying to encourage customers to bring in a mug.

The new contest will no doubt generate some cool, innovative ideas about what to do with old coffee cups (public art, flower pots for kids), but it feels more like a PR stunt than a serious attempt to resolve something the company says is a big customer concern.

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