Starbucks tackles paper (cup) tiger
Starbucks sells on average 8.2 million paper cups of coffee a day, all of which can be recycled, but most still end up in landfills.
The world’s biggest coffee chain wants to change that by convincing everyone from recycling companies to paper mills that it’s worth the effort to recycle paper cups. But the strategy has proved a hard sell, calling attention to a widespread problem in the recycling movement: Just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it gets recycled.
About 25 percent of items thrown into home recycling bins are never recycled, said Susan Collins, executive director of the nonprofit group Container Recycling Institute. Oftentimes items are deemed unusable by the time they reach recycling centers because they are contaminated with food or laced with broken glass from containers that shattered in the same bin.
Currently, recycling companies want to focus on other materials, like cardboard and aluminum, for which there is an attractive resale market. That’s not the case with paper cups, forcing Starbucks to try to collect as many of its own cups as it can, strike deals with companies to recycle them, and then agree in some cases to buy back the material.
“You can collect all of this stuff,’’ said Christine Beling of the Environmental Protection Agency, who agrees with Starbucks’ approach. “But unless you have someone to buy it from you, who cares?’’
With paper cups for coffee, there is another major issue: Many recycling companies don’t have the equipment to separate the cup’s paper from its inner lining which prevents hot liquids from leaking.
To improve collections, Starbucks has been installing special bins designed to segregate coffee cups from other waste; the chain recently introduced them in all 30 of the company’s stores in the Boston area. The chain is then lining up companies that have agreed to recycle its cups, which have been made of 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber since 2006. In Massachusetts, Starbucks is working with RockTenn, with plants scattered across the United States, to collect the cups, recycle them, and sell the material to paper mills.
In some markets, such as New York and Chicago, the company is working with paper mills and recycling centers to turn some of the recycled paper cups into napkins used by Starbucks.
“The focus is often, ‘What can I do to the cup to make it more recyclable?’ ’’ said Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental impact. “What’s more important is, ‘What can I do to the infrastructure to make these cups more recyclable?’ ’’