Starbucks new reusable plastic coffee cup: greenwashing or green marketing?

Home/Health/Starbucks new reusable plastic coffee cup: greenwashing or green marketing?

Some companies, like Starbucks, generate a lot of waste just by the nature of their business. Selling coffee, tea or else in a single use disposable paper cup is a quite wasteful daily job. But there are ways to green up a business model and corporate responsibility may have been (part of) the reason for this Starbucks launch of an inexpensive reusable #5 plastic coffee cup. Or not?

Starbucks launched reusable #5 plastic $1 coffee tea cups to reduce waste from paper cupsStarbucks has long made environmentally responsible practices a core principle, and the January launch of a new reusable plastic cup was presented as their last take at it. With about 4 billion single-use paper cups going into the trash each year (can’t be recycled due to a “plasticky” inner lining), the company set a goal of having 5% of all drinks sold in reusable cups by 2015. Starbucks does sell more or less expensive glass and stainless steel reusable cup options (ranging from $5 to $30 a piece), but this new reusable plastic cup is only $1 and actually becomes free after 10 uses because each refill gets you a $0.10 discount.

Starbucks launched a new reusable #5 plastic $1 coffee tea cup in January 2013 to reduce waste from paper cupsWhat we know about it: Starbucks baristas present the plastic cup as dishwasher-safe for 30 uses (saving 1 lb of paper or 3.5 lb of wood needed to make 30 paper cups). Yet, based on usage, it seems that after 5 uses its life is pretty much over, especially if you dish-wash or have baristas rinse it with boiling water, as offered. Also, it is made of plastic #5 (polypropylene), for which recycling is typically not available through curb pick-up services.

These are the known elements used in the debate the very good We Hate To Waste online community ( started in this article: Starbucks new reusable $1 plastic cup, green marketing or green washing?

Here is our take on it:

Greening-up part of a business model is expected to cost money. For-profit company make money, often by leveraging economies of scale, finding always cheaper ways to run daily operations, possibly to the detriment of quality and always for more profit. Hence this simple, intuitive, mostly accurate truth: Unless it actually costs a big company money to make its operations more eco-friendly, it is likely just green-washing. The company finds a green angle in a project that is in fact just another promotional tactic with an cost associated and as final objective, a greater return.

Green is just the new black, not a generalized newfound corporate mission. Being green is trendy and part of most big companies’ marketing plans these days. Just like any other marketing idea, they try it and if the return on investment is higher than for other tactics, then they keep at it. Bonus? Being seen as green is generally appreciated across the board by green and not green customers alike. It provides this added make-customer-feel-good-I’m-green incentive to buy a product, or choose a brand or a company over another one. And this can only benefit a wasteful company like Starbucks.

Drinking from a plastic cup is not safe for our health. The one most critical aspect, our health, is completely absent from Starbucks’ rationale. Indeed, in order to break even from a pollution impact standpoint, the plastic cup must be reused, several times. But per current scientific knowledge, eating in or drinking from plastic containers is a big no-no. Let alone reusing them. And heat makes things even worse: drinking hot beverages, dishwashing the cup or letting the barista boil clean it, just like scratching it while washing or using it will only increase the leaching of toxic chemicals into your drink/food….  Sure there are worst types of plastics than polypropylene (like #3, #7), but that does not make it safe at all!

Use Starbucks ceramic reusable coffee tea cups or your own to reduce waste from paper cupsIf you really care about your health and the environment, here is what you can do:

  • Kick the Starbucks habit or addiction by making your own coffee. Some reusable stainless steel insulated Thermos bottles come in various sizes and perfectly keep beverages hot for hours. Just turn on the coffee machine in the morning and you’re done. Buying one will pay back in no time.
  • Too radical? Then bring in your own ceramic container. It is free, least polluting and ceramic, health-wise, is the absolute best for hot drinks. This simple habit will pay back in life credits a thousand times. An added benefit is the handle of you ceramic mug: it removes the need for a wasteful paper sleeve, which you wold need with the plastic cup because it is light and made of little material so it does get hot.

Starbucks does not offer recycling for its plastic #5! So chances are, once the cup is worn out and needs to be changed, it will end up in the trash because most curb pick-up services do not handle #5 either. Yet, ways to recycle polypropylene do exist: Preserve is the company behind the “Gimme 5” program. They partner with grocery chains to place collection bins in store for customers to drop off their #5. They then turn it into disposable items like toothbrushes, razors and plates, cups and utensils. At least it creates a virtuous cycle for those who endlessly buy these items. Most Whole Foods Market stores offer Preserve bins but the program may not (yet) be as known as it would deserve to be. Even so, if it’s already a challenge to remember to bring in a reusable cup for coffee, why would consumers fare better at bringing their #5 to participating stores?

Jumping on the green bandwagon, like everyone else… for higher benefits! As many other green-washing consumer goods companies, Starbucks may have just seen a different yet-to-be-tried marketing idea in this green project. It does not seem they fully thought it through (in a cradle-to-cradle, full lifecycle analysis way) and the financial part might have been the only fully completed calculation that green-lighted (:-) the launch. On this, hats off to Starbucks: It is actually genius marketing to make a customer willingly pay $1 for this feel-good-I-am-being-green cup, while being paid to save money on the paper cups they don’t use because they are selling us plastic ones instead! Benefits don’t end there: a green-minded customer will likely buy more than one cup, whether to replace a forgotten or a worn out one. All users of this cup turn themselves into free walking advertising billboards (making Starbucks a top of mind brand for whoever sees them) and are incentivized to buy their fix at Starbucks so they can use their reusable cup and cash in the $0.10 discount (10 CENTS?!) per refill. For Starbucks, it means fewer paper cups needed, hence lower supplies and in-store trash removal costs. Free advertising, higher loyalty, lower overhead costs. In the end, a smart business-rather-than-green move.

Had they replaced their disposable paper cups with compostable/biodegradable cups (truly green but a more expensive option) and put in place a full path from local production (not China) to making sure all used cups, along with their coffee grounds end up biodegraded in the soil of local farmers free of charge to them, that would have been a different story.

The #5 reusable plastic cup is just an example showing how the Howard Schultz very thoughtful and socially driven Starbucks of the early beginning has evolved into a typical corporate entity like any other.

What are your coffee, tea, water or other drinks on-the-go routines? Do you own a reusable bottle for water/cold drinks and, or a tumblr for hot beverages? Have you or would you buy a Starbucks reusable plastic cup?

Credit photo: Miranda Farley on We Hate To for the reusable plastic cup picture on the right side of the montage and Sietske Arnoldus on for the reusable plastic cup picture on the side side of the montage.


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