Starbucks…Lids or Straws, which is better for the environment?

So I like to research stuff. All kinds of stuff. Especially these days with the proliferation of “information” on social media with sources that are biased at best and completely false at the worst, it’s important to do research. So, I decided to start a blog category where I take random questions that I have and find out the answers. I *might* dabble in some political topics, but I’m going to start out with a relatively benign topic: straws.

Lately, I’ve been getting what I call adult sippy cups at Starbucks instead of straws. At first, I was fine with this change because it seems like a small sacrifice to make for the planet. But it seems to me that the lids have more plastic in them than the straws. Why can’t this giant corporation just buy compostable straws like the rest of us normal people?

 

What’s the truth? Let’s find out together!

My first search term for Google is “amount of plastic in a Starbucks straw.” This article gives the weights for both the old straw/lid combo and the new lid. As I suspected, the new lid is actually more plastic than the old combination: “Verify’s Jason Puckett ran his own version of the tests. Each type of lid was weighed 20 times on two different scales. The numbers were then averaged.His results showed an average weight of 1.35 for the old lid and small straw combo and 1.95 grams for the old lid and big straw.The new lid averaged a weight of 2.55 grams across testing.” In case you aren’t a math person, that means that the new lid contains 31% more plastic than the old combo.

Verify reached out to Starbucks about this, and their answer is that the straws are too hard to recycle. Here’s the response they sent Puckett:

“Hi Jason,

Our strawless lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment. The introduction of our strawless lid as the standard for non-blended beverages by 2020 allows us to significantly reduce the number of straws and non-recyclable plastic from our stores around the world.”

Well, I guess that makes sense. But I’m wondering if there isn’t a better way. Back to my original question…why isn’t Starbucks (who, by the way charges $5 for a drink that costs a few cents to make–here’s an interesting article on Starbucks’ profit margins!) using compostable straws? In fact, they ARE planning to use compostable straws–for Frappuccinos: “They will become the standard lid for all iced drinks except Frappuccino, which will be served with a straw made from paper or PLA compostable plastic manufactured from fermented plant starch or other sustainable material” (from Starbucks Stories). Hmmm…So why are they manufacturing more plastic to make adult sippy cups instead of simply using the compostable straws that they are already planning to use for some of their drinks?

According to an audit of plastic pollution in 42 countries conducted by Break Free From Plastic in 2018, Starbucks is number 18 on the world’s highest producers of plastic waste (reported in The Street). On the beaches in California, Starbucks waste came in 3rd! Why would one of the world’s largest sources of plastic waste choose to increase their use of plastic?

plastic garbage

CCO Public Domain

Why doesn’t Starbucks simply use compostable cups like many eco-friendly smaller companies, who arguably make much less money?

Here are Starbucks gross profits over the last few years as reported on a stock tracking website called MacroTrends:

“Starbucks annual/quarterly gross profit history and growth rate from 2006 to 2020. Gross profit can be defined as the profit a company makes after deducting the variable costs directly associated with making and selling its products or providing its services.

  • Starbucks gross profit for the quarter ending June 30, 2020 was $2.738B, a 40.78% decline year-over-year.
  • Starbucks gross profit for the twelve months ending June 30, 2020 was $16.204B, a 16.11% decline year-over-year.
  • Starbucks annual gross profit for 2019 was $17.982B, a 7.11% increase from 2018.
  • Starbucks annual gross profit for 2018 was $16.789B, a 9.58% increase from 2017.
  • Starbucks annual gross profit for 2017 was $15.321B, a 19.63% increase from 2016.”

In fact, their profit margins are HUGE according to this article: “According to Coffee Makers USA, the actual coffee in a grande Starbucks Cappuccino costs roughly 31 cents. The drink itself sells for around $3.65, in 2014. Subtract the cost from the revenue and divide the difference by the original cost to get the margin. The margin in this scenario is 91.5 percent on the coffee alone.” And that’s just for a plain cup of coffee!

Why is a multi-billion dollar company, who is one of the largest sources of plastic waste in the world and who has the resources and the profit margins to choose non-plastic, compostable products, not doing so? And does it even matter?

This article by Sustainable America details some of the problems with compostable cups, namely that they only compost well in certain conditions. “If they are sent to an industrial-scale composting facility with actively managed piles of compost under controlled conditions, and fed a diet of digestive microbes, PLA cups will break down in less than two months. In someone’s backyard compost heap, it could easily take more than a year. If they are accidentally sent to a landfill and buried, it could take over a century. And if they go into a plastics recycling bin, they will contaminate the recycling process.” Wow! A hundred years in a landfill..that does seem like a long time. Perhaps the compostable cups aren’t as great as I thought?

Before I decide, let’s look up this question: how long does it take for a regular plastic cup to decompose?

Before I found the answer to that question, I discovered a whole new conundrum: the Starbucks paper coffee cups are NOT recyclable! Not only does it take 1,000,000 trees per year to manufacture the cups, reports Treehugger, but ““In order to be able to hold liquids safely, Starbucks paper cups are lined with a thin layer of 100% oil-based polyethylene plastic made by companies like Dow and Chevron. This plastic lining makes the cups impossible to recycle because it clogs most recycled paper mills’ machinery…” So not only do the plastic cups pose a problem, but so do their coffee cups! And, despite a promise that Starbucks would replace all coffee cups to recyclable versions by 2015, that has not happened. In fact, rather than using their own considerable resources to simply use cups that are better for the environment, Starbucks hopes that the public will foot the multi-billion dollar bill to retrofit recycling plants to recycle their cups.

Back to the time for a Starbucks’ plastic cup to decompose….The answer is actually NEVER according to this article: “Plastics persist for decades in the ocean and break down into smaller and smaller pieces but never biodegrade.” In his article, Lebanc qualifies that “never” by saying that “Normally, plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.” Ok. So compostable cups can be a problem because in a normal landfill it takes up to 100 years to decompose, BUT the plastic cups being used now will likely not decompose for 1,000 years. It seems to me that the option that takes 90% less time is a better one, even if it’s not perfect.

Interestingly, Starbucks’ website tries to put a positive spin on their use of plastics: “Each year, an estimated 600 billion paper and plastic cups are distributed globally*, and though Starbucks cups only account for an estimated 1 percent of that total, we are invested in finding a more sustainable solution. ” So, Starbucks’ answer is essentially, “Yes. There is a ton of pollution in the world, and we make a lot of it, but it’s only 1%.” Well, 1% of 600 billion is still 6 BILLION. And if Starbucks decided to create a change, it would make a whole lot of difference, and perhaps other folks would follow suit.

According to an article in Eater, Starbucks is trying to do exactly that: “Starbucks laid out goals in its 2016 Global Social Impact Report to double the recycled materials in its hot cup and investigate alternative materials for cold cups by 2022. It also plans to double the number of stores and cities with access to cup recycling, and incentivize customers to choose a reusable cup over a disposable option.”  However, this article reminds us that Starbucks doesn’t have a great track record for keeping these types of promises:  “Starbucks is the biggest coffee company in the world. The impact of its waste on our water, oceans, and health is dramatic. A decade ago the company committed to change. It pledged to introduce a fully recyclable cup by 2015 and to selling at least 25% of its drinks in reusable cups. To date Starbucks has yet to develop that recyclable cup and only 1.6% of drinks it sells are consumed in non-disposable cups or mugs. It is nowhere near the goals it set in 2008…” Even for this arguably non-environmentally conscious mom, it feels like Starbucks is stalling.

In this instance, it appears that my hunch is correct–Starbucks’ move to replace straws with sippy cup lids appears to be a public relations decision, rather than one that will make a real impact. As a consumer who really, really enjoys my Starbucks, I would really love to see this company use some of their significant resources to make a positive difference for our world. Time will tell if they are serious about their environmentally conscious reputation or not. I mean, if I can buy compostable straws and cups and plates to use in my own home, surely this corporation can do the same. It would, after all, be a step in the right direction, even if it’s not a perfect one.

In the meantime, I will have to think twice about buying Starbucks. I know there are some great coffee shops out there that use more environmentally friendly cups–they just aren’t in my town. But, if I want to hold Starbucks accountable for their use of plastics, then I need to hold myself accountable, too. Isn’t that interesting…researching something actually points the finger back at myself and my own practices and values. 😉

So…what questions are burning in your mind? Let’s find out the facts together!

Karen

 

 

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