Talking Trash about Coffee


Posted by Chris O’Brien

An article in the Seattle Times this past Wednesday claims that Starbucks’ vice president of corporate social responsibility “knows it’s an issue” that the company’s coffee cups are single-use disposable trash that can’t be recycled.

The company’s 2.5 billion paper cups used in North American stores last year contain 10% post consumer waste (PCW) recycled fiber content, and the cup sleeves contain 60% PCW content; both attributes are improvements considering that the cups used to be 100% virgin and “double-cupping” was a common wasteful practice that was mostly made obsolete by the sleeves.

But the cups are still lined with plastic, and that makes them non-recyclable. There are new coffee cups on the market, like the ecotainer (which I wrote about here), that replace that plastic lining with a starch-based material, which makes them compostable. But a compostable cup does not compost make. Just like a ‘recyclable’ aluminum can has to actually be recycled in order to gain the benefit of its recycability, so a compostable cup needs to enter a composting system in order to realize its environmental advantages. That’s a bit of a challenge since composting infrastructure is fairly limited in the U.S.

However, it is certainly possible to arrange composting services independently, and there is a growing number of compostable products: food serviceware, garbage liners, and packaging products. The Biodegradable Products Institute website lists all the companies with products that meet the BPI standard for compostability. Only products that meet these standards are allowed to display the BPI logo (seen here at top). Composting is a heady matter, requiring specific conditions regarding light, temperature and moisture. In other words, simply tossing a cup in landfill and waiting decades or centuries for it to degrade doesn’t count.

Bottoms Up!My prediction is that government will eventually provide composting services the same way it now offers recycling services in many places. Meanwhile, I like the approach taken by Higher Grounds (my co-bloggers here at BeanActivist). They simply don’t offer disposable cups. Instead, if you forget to bring your own reusable mug, they’ll give you one! That’s right, they’ll give you a ceramic mug to takeaway. How can they afford that? Simple answer: craigslist. They post want ads for free coffee mugs on craigslist. Imagine all the tacky, unloved mugs stuffing cupboards across America, like that “bottoms-up” mug you received at your bachelor party from your high school buddy. Now imagine someone who is willing to take them away from you for free and put them to good use. It’s simply brilliant.

Don’t expect Starbucks to attempt this novel approach any time soon. They are currently experimenting with the compostable variety so we’ll have to see what happens.


4 Responses to Talking Trash about Coffee

  1. We are a small company trying to wade through the environmental and social sustainability issues in coffee. It’s no small task, your website and articles are excellent. I appreciate your effort to inform people on these import issues. We like you have not found a good solution to the sustainability issues in retail service of coffee. I love the idea of reusing mugs at Higher Grounds. We have tried the EPI cups but found that their failure rate was unacceptably high, we will be testing Solo’s new cup in our store in the next few weeks and are hopeful that they can be incorporated into our composting.

    Thanks for the great work.

  2. web says:

    Hi, it’s a good article, and very nice idea.

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