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Exclusive: Starbucks to ditch plastic straws by 2020

Beginning in 2020, all of Starbucks’s cold drinks will be served with either strawless lids, or paper or compostable straws.

Exclusive: Starbucks to ditch plastic straws by 2020
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

When Starbucks began developing a new nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee back in 2016, it discovered it had a problem. The allure of the drink was its creamy, frothy top (much like that of a Guinness), but the traditional way to consume cold coffee—through a straw—starts at the bottom. To showcase its Nitro Cold Brew, the company had to create an entirely new lid: a strawless version that resembles something of an adult sippy cup.

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While testing an early version of these lids at one of its Seattle cafes, Starbucks realized that it wasn’t just developing a solution for its nitro drinks. “We quickly saw the implications that this would have in our ability to reduce straw usage. We saw this lid as a way to get out of the conversation about what kind of plastic straw is good or bad, and to turn it toward reducing straw usage from the very beginning,” says Colleen Chapman, vice president of global social impact for Starbucks.

Today, that somewhat dorky lid is powering the coffee juggernaut’s announcement that it plans to eliminate plastic straws across its 30,000 global outposts. Beginning in 2020, all of Starbucks’s cold drinks will be served with either strawless lids or (in the case of thicker, blended beverages) paper or compostable straws.

That puts Starbucks out in front of a wave of ordinances that are sweeping across the country—and world—aimed at eliminating the single-use plastic straw. Too small to be recycled, most straws end up in landfill and clogging waterways. According to the Ocean Conservancy, they’re among the most frequently found items in beach cleanups. In July, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to fully ban plastic straws. New York City and California are mulling their own bans. The European Commission is considering one. And the U.K. is preparing to phase out straws as well.

With Starbucks responsible for using an estimated 2 billion plastic straws annually, according to the nonprofit As You Sow, the company’s commitment to finding a way to reduce its reliance on them sends a strong signal to other businesses. And it comes at a time when Starbucks’s cold-coffee business is booming: Five years ago, cold drinks accounted for 37% percent of its beverage sales. Last year, they accounted for 50% of sales.

Though Chapman acknowledges that the strawless lid weighs more than the company’s traditional cold-drink lid, she says it’s made from highly recyclable polypropylene plastic. “Calling for more plastic is not the easy answer,” she says. “But we are eliminating straws, which by their nature are not recyclable.” She explains that moving entirely to compostable straws—another option the company could have pursued—was also not optimal, as many markets do not have composting capabilities. “We feel very strongly that innovating and engineering on this lid is the best thing to do from an environmental standpoint.”

Just as important: The new lid encourages customers to consider the impact of their daily choices. “[We] look to make decisions that have a positive affect in the industry, which other companies can leverage,” says Chapman. In other words, this could be the lid that broke the straw’s back.

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