Starbucks, The cup problem – A Solution A Day

Background – The cup problem

The intent is to address a larger problem each Sunday while doing at home and small business solutions throughout the rest of the week. This week the focus is on Starbucks Coffee. Each year they sell millions if not billions of little cups. The paper cups are coated on the inside with a material that allows the paper to function with hot liquids. Unfortunately this cup design is very hard to recycle because the two material typically need to be separated which is more difficult and costly. Starbucks has the goal of having 100% of their cups recyclable by 2015, I am not sure of their progress on that front. I became aware of this problem a few months ago and tried to contact their director of Environmental Impact (Jim Hanna) who’s e-mail information is difficult to find. Not being able to locate a direct contact method for him I sent a message through Starbucks customer service department this also was unsuccessful. Oddly this incident and a few others from large companies is why I write my solutions here instead.

A Cup of Coffee
A Cup of Coffee in a reusable coffee cup.

The Problem – Starbucks Cups end up in Landfills

How can we keep Starbucks cups out of the landfill? It appears the Starbucks approach is to make plastic cups (Eww… yet another material that doesn’t degrade for thousands of years…but it can be recycled). They sell their fully recyclable plastic cups for $1. The cups are reusable and they provide recycling bins to accept them inside their restaurants. At face value this might be an improvement on the old cup system but we can do much better in my opinion.

The Solution – Heavy Duty Reusable Cups

After five minutes of learning about the problem that Starbucks had I came up with what I think is a much better solution. Then I learned about their plastic recyclable cups and I still think my solution is better. Basically, Starbucks should manufacture large vacuum insulated aluminium cups. These cups are given to customers by swiping their phone on a censor, which takes a $20 deposit from the customer for each cup. The customer is free to keep the cup if they like or if they return to Starbucks  and walk inside they may deposit it inside a wash bin (please bring them back rinsed out). The wash bin would contain a swipe for your phone which would credit the deposit back to the customers Starbucks account (the money can be removed from the Starbucks account and returned to a bank account online). In the drive-through there is a similar process except the cup get placed inside a slot on a conveyor belt. They also swipe the card on returning the cup to receive the deposit back. They conveyor belt is built such that as cups are loaded into it they are each washed in a washing section of the belt and then dried and the cup come out clean and ready to use in the employee area. After the cups have been used thousands of times (or as Starbucks employees identify damaged cups) they are removed by the employee from the chain and sent to a recycle facility which melts down the aluminium, recasts a new cup, vacuum seals the new cup, and finally places Starbucks logo on the cup. Then the cup is returned to service for further use.

This provides multiple benefits to Starbucks, Starbucks’ Customers and the environment. For Starbucks, this encourages the customer to come back (they have to return the cup to get their money back, they might as well get more coffee). For the customer it provides a higher quality cup that can be well designed to insulate the beverage and to not leech any chemicals into their beverage (the leeching may be a non concern and I am unsure what materials are used by Starbucks). Finally for the environment it eliminates the addition of any plastic to the environment and reduces the number of materials being deposited in landfills.


The coffee industry in general should adopt this kind of reusable model. Starbucks being the industry leader should lead the initiative. Jim Hanna should make himself more reachable. In the mean time you can do your part and make your own coffee to drink out of your own highly reusable and environmentally friendly coffee cups.