Starbucks Paper Cup Fail: It’s A People Problem

The coffee company made admirable promises to reduce its paper waste by encouraging people to bring their own cups, but are the way individual Starbucks are run ruining that effort?


Last year I wrote about Starbucks‘ long journey to try and make sure that every drink in their 17,000 locations is served in a cup that’s either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2015. Out of 200 billion paper cups that Americans toss in landfills each year, 3 billion bear that newly redesigned green logo.  Last week Starbucks held a third annual “cup summit” with stakeholders including paper companies, waste handlers and even competitor Tim Horton’s to review their progress and restate their goals: they now have recycling in 18 markets and have completed three pilot studies to establish its feasibility elsewhere.

As a result of reporting the story I bought my own reusable Starbucks-branded tumbler. I was in Starbucks recently to order a delicious seasonal pumpkin latte in celebration of the crisp fall weather, when I noticed the following:

After I gave my order to the guy at the register, he wrote it on a paper cup, which has the handy little boxes on the side for noting decaf, extra shot, or whatever. Then he stuck the paper cup inside my reusable tumbler to pass it down to the people making the drinks. There’s no way that cup can be used by anyone else, so my conscientious effort to bring my own cup was effectively rendered null and void.

Since then, I’ve noticed this cup duplication happening more than half the time I order at stores around Manhattan. Usually it occurs in stores that are too busy and hectic for me to feel comfortable interrupting the flow by complaining. Starbucks has a stated goal of serving 25% of drinks in reusable tumblers by 2015, a goal rated “needs improvement” on their sustainability report. That’s an understatement given that the current figure is just 1.8%. But it would appear that what really needs improvement is Starbucks’ barista training on what to do when a customer hands over a reusable cup.

[Image: Flickr user jeffwilcox]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.