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Seeing red? Starbucks festive cups face up to growing sustainability questions.

Posted on Nov 21, 2018 9:58:04 AM

Starbucks Festive Cup 2018 (picture courtesy of Starbucks) First introduced in 1997, the annual launch of Starbucks’ festive cups, has through a mix of marketing magic and the huge global expansion of coffee culture become an informal herald that Christmas is fast approaching. Devotees of the Seattle-based chain, which now boasts over 28,000 outlets around the world, seem to get very excited about the annual unveiling of its special Christmas cups. There’s even a fan run website devoted to counting down the days, hours and minutes until the cups are launched. But the world has change since 1997, and even more in the last few years. With consumers increasingly aware of the damage that disposable packaging is doing to the world, how does Starbucks, a company that likes to champion sustainability, fit these one-use cups into is messaging?

In July, Starbucks became the latest consumer brand to announce it will eliminate single-use plastic straws from its 28,000+ stores by 2002 by making a strawless lid or alternative-material straw options available, around the world.

“For our partners and customers, this is a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways,” said Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer for Starbucks.

In addition to this announcement, Starbucks has previously committed $10 million to develop and help bring to market, a fully recyclable and compostable hot cup, in partnership with Closed Loop Partners, through the NextGen Cup Consortium and Challenge.

So what about this year’s red cups?

In 2018, the range of subtle red (and for the first time green) cups were launched alongside a range of festive drinks including Christmas Brulee Latte and a Flat White with Cinnamon Spice. 

So, are they recyclable?

No... well yes… but not that easily.

The mix of paper and plastic in their inner polyethylene liner, which makes them both heat and leak-proof makes them very hard to recycle. You can’t put them in the regular recycling. They have to go to special recycling points. And the vast majority don’t - according to a BBC report more than 99.75% aren't recycled. 

What about the reusable cups that have become so popular?

Well, you can use one that you bring in the store, and claim a discount. Which is great. But by doing that you aren’t using a red cup. That won’t bother most, but as we know, there are people who love these cups.

For Sustainable living specialist. Jen Gale ( @sustainableish ) the launch of the cups brings little festive cheer; "I really don’t understand all the excitement around Starbuck’s special Christmas red cups - a disposable cup is still a disposable cup, no matter how jolly and festive it looks. It’s still nigh on impossible to recycle and will sit in landfill (looking all jolly and festive) for years to come."

"In the UK we get through an estimated 7 million disposable cups a day, and of these about half a million are littered. Isn’t it about time Starbucks et al. stopped focussing their efforts and money on how to get us to buy more coffee, and started looking at how to clean up the mess they are helping to make?" concluded Jen. 

So what do Starbucks have to say? We asked them and a spokesperson based in the UK exclusively told Bio-Based World News:

“Our festive cups are standard paper cups and can be recycled at more than 4,500 paper cup recycling points around the UK, whether that’s in our stores, other high street retailers or bring banks – a scheme operated by the recycling alliance ACE UK where the public can recycle their cups at 382 locations across 97 local authorities.”

“For the first time this Christmas, Starbucks has given its classic £1 reusable cup a merry make-over with a brand-new red design. We give customers a 25p discount for bringing in their own tumbler to encourage people to reuse” they concluded.

In the USA, special reusable festive cups were on offer for free, but stores ran out quickly and naturally, Starbucks fans took to Twitter to vent their displeasure. They are now back available, for $2.50.

So, it’s a mixed picture. There’s a clear acknowledgement that the way this annual event is carried out needs to change. But in the end, it’s a huge marketing push of hard to recycle single use cups and that is something increasingly out of step with our environmentally conscious world. Unless they can create recyclable cups with the properties (and cost) that Starbucks require, allied to an infrastructure to ensure they go the right place, it feels that the days of red cups (at least single use ones) might not last too many more Christmases. 


What do you think? Fun festive tradition? Or an environmentally unacceptable practice? Comment below, or email Editor@BioBasedWorldNews.com and we'll publish the best comments. 


You might also be interested in... 

Issue #11 of the Bio-Based World Quarterly now available

  Read: Alternative materials at the heart of Starbucks elimination of single-use plastic straws.

Read: Starbucks commits $10M to solving their cup problem; continues research into bio-liner solution.

Read: Just Eat commits to cutting plastic usage with "practical" bio-based alternatives.

Download: Bio-Based World Quarterly issue #11

Visit: World Bio Markets, 1st-3rd April 2019, Amsterdam

Read: Five very different ways that can help tackle the global plastic crisis


 

Topics: BBWNBrands, Plastics and Packaging, BBW featured

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About the Author

Luke Upton
Luke Upton
Luke is the editor and co-founder of Bio-Based World has edited this site since its launch and previously worked for b2b media companies across industries including energy, advertising and sport. His ...read more