Around 200 billion paper cups are thrown into landfills each year in the United States, and 3 billion of them have a green Starbucks logo. For the better part of two decades, as I've written in Fast Company, the coffee Colossus has been struggling to reduce the environmental impact of its packaging, from handwarmer sleeves to recycled-content paper to lower-fossil fuel plastics to in-store recycling, even convening "cup summits" with other retailers like McDonald's and Tim Horton's. The cup has become something of a personal crusade of CEO Howard Howard Schultz.
The latest attempt, announced today, is to sell $1 reusable plastic cups in every store. "The idea is to create some longevity in consumer habits," says Starbucks director of environmental impact Jim Hanna. He cites cost—10 uses and the $1 cup pays for itself with Starbucks' 10 cent reusables discount— and the convenience factor—customers will be able to keep one in their office, home, and car. And there's a design factor as well: the new plastic cups look and feel very much like the paper hot cups. "Our customers like the routine," Hanna says.
But the $1 cup is unlikely to be a silver bullet. Reusable tumblers are already for sale in most stores, albeit at higher prices, and currently, just under 2 percent of customers bring their own; the company's goal is to bring that up to 5% by 2015. That modest goal has been adjusted downward from 25% a few years ago. And even if you do bring your own mug, sometimes Starbucks baristas use a paper cup to mark your order, making the whole thing feel a bit futile.
If Starbucks is serious about cutting out disposable cups, maybe they need to go the way of Whole Foods and ban the plastic altogether.