Saving the world, one coffee cup at a time

Starbucks wants to save the world from trash. Photos have recently been making the social media rounds: Margaret Atwood shared one of plastic trash floating around in the ocean, heavy with bright green Starbucks straws. The coffee giant needs to work on their image.

In a move that they must have been planning for a while, the chain has announced that they are committing $10 million toward the creation of a new disposable coffee cup that will be better for the environment. The cups they’re looking for will be fully recyclable and biodegradable — but don’t get too excited, they don’t exist yet.

The cups will be created through the NextGen cup challenge initiative, co-sponsored by Starbucks and the Closed Loop Partners Center for the Circular Economy. Closed Loop Partners is a company committed to developing sustainable consumer goods, something that is of the utmost importance in today’s economy. We are the type of people who buy a new $1000 phone every year, so why would we care that much about a paper cup? After all, it does have a recycled symbol on the side of it, right? Starbucks cups are actually only made with 10 per cent post consumer recycled material. Their cup sleeves are made with 85 per cent post consumer material, which is much better, but they don’t have the added difficulty of being a food container. Cups hold your coffee, and therefore have to be approved to do so. The cups must therefore be coated on the inside, which prevents them from being easily recycled, a problem that most coffee chains are dealing with. The company has tried a number of solutions in the past, including a 5p charge per paper cup in the UK, and a discount for people who bring their own cup. They also introduced a reusable cup that looks almost identical to their paper cups, and weighs about as little. It started at $1 in Canada, and has since been increased to $2. While they’ve made some progress, it just isn’t enough.IMG_0253

Even though it’s only a dream right now, this initiative is important for both Starbucks and the take out coffee industry in general. As a society, we are pretty lazy when it comes to environmental conservation.

A few years ago, the travel coffee tumbler was all the rage. Everyone and their dad had one. I have about eight of them, made of several different materials including metal, ceramic, and even one made from a biodegradable paper fiber covered in doodles of kittens playing with yarn. If you go into a Starbucks location, you’ll see that there are literally dozens of options available, in both ‘grande,’ the 16 ounce cup, and ‘venti,’ the 20 ounce cup. They even have iced coffee cups. So why doesn’t everyone have one all the time? Convenience.

The only explanation for people not carrying around their reusable coffee cup all day is that they would actually have to carry their reusable coffee cup around ALL DAY. If you’ve ever had to do that, you know that it is not only annoying, it can be messy. I haven’t seen one of those ‘no leak’ cups in a very long time, probably because the lids get full of mold if you don’t clean them properly — and how do you clean those things properly anyway? All of the other ones have flimsy rubber lids that pop off and throw coffee at you, or plastic ones that sit inside your cup but don’t actually seal it, which leads to false confidence and the wish that you had brought an extra shirt to work or school with you. And then you have to wash the cup. When you go to get another cup the barista will rinse it out for you, but that isn’t so helpful if you forgot your cup on your desk the day before and you take milk in your coffee. People are just too lazy to use their own cups every day when it is so convenient to pitch your cup in the trash when you’re finished.

Starbucks noted in their press release that about 600 million paper and plastic cups are used by takeout chains every year. How many of those cups did you use? How many coffees do you have each day? Even if it’s only one, you may be throwing away as many as 365 cups each year that can only be recycled in certain locations, and are made mostly of new paper.

“No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it’s just not moving fast enough. So today, we are declaring a moon shot for sustainability to work together as an industry to bring a fully recyclable and compostable cup to the market, with a three-year ambition,” said Colleen Chapman, vice president of Starbucks global social impact overseeing sustainability in a press release. That’s where the NextGen Cup Challenge comes in. The company and their partners will provide grants to companies that are working toward a sustainable cup. Who knows, maybe a Brock student will come up with the best idea and rescue us all from the mounting pile of trash we all make every day without even thinking about it.

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