How Starbucks Can Stop Its Plastic Problem

By Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw

If you’ve followed our Starbucks #BreakFreeFromPlastic campaign, you may know Starbucks set a goal in 2008 to serve 25 percent of hot and cold beverages in reusable cups by 2015. To date, Starbucks serves less than 2 percent of drinks in reusable cups. 

Starbucks’ annual report shows that 73 percent of sales are beverages, and 4 percent are hard goods (merchandise). Here’s where I see a glaring gap and potential for a huge increase of hard good sales, which could result in decreased waste generation and costs worldwide: Instead of business as usual with continued global expansion that simultaneously increases profits and global waste, Starbucks has an opportunity to show social and environmental responsibility, increase profits, save money, and generate less waste by promoting branded reusable cups, straws, and cutlery. 

Certainly compostables and recyclables are a step in the right direction, but I feel reusables should be a part of that conversation too. This company is sitting on a gold mine of branded reusables (see photos below).

Above: Starbucks reusable cups for sale, a compostable paper straw in a plastic cup, a compostable paper straw and compostable paper cup available at Starbucks in Santa Cruz, and plastic Starbucks trash found on the beach. Photos by Jackie Nuñez.

If Starbucks would put as much effort into selling branded reusables as they do in marketing their Frappuccinos in single-use plastic dome cups (with “not so green” plastic straws), imagine the impact they would have worldwide. 

Starbucks has claimed that previous efforts to get customers to bring their own cups have not worked due to “failure from the customer to participate,” but it is apparent that there is a lack of effort on Starbucks’ part to truly promote the concept. 

Did you know?

  • If you bring your own or request a reusable ceramic “dine in cup,” Starbucks will give you a 10¢ discount on your beverage.
  • Starbucks stores in Santa Cruz County, California, have been serving paper straws and unlined compostable paper cups since September 2017, to comply to our county foodware ordinance. 

In order to comply with Santa Cruz County’s ordinance, Starbucks quietly stopped using plastic-lined cups and plastic straws in multiple locations in the county in September 2017.  Starbucks switched to high-quality Aardvark paper straws which are durable, hold up for the life of the drink, and do not contain any toxic dyes, glues, or coatings, and still the compostable cups and straws were released with no publicity or fanfare. 

We in Santa Cruz are thrilled with the switch to paper straws. Santa Cruz is upstream from the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, and we still find plastic pollution on our beaches. The paper straws I find during my beach cleanups won’t harm wildlife or the environment like the plastic straws.

In the county of Santa Cruz, all single-use foodware must be certified compostable by BPI standards or “recyclable.” Unfortunately, the same is not true for the City of Santa Cruz since we do not have the same ordinance, and although Starbucks is already providing paper straws in the county they are not doing so in the city of Santa Cruz because we are not mandating it yet.

I spoke with a customer who is a Starbucks regular who travels a lot for work and often works out of Starbucks, and this is what she shared with me:

  • When I ask for a mug at Starbucks I get 10 cents off.  But maybe 3/10 times do the baristas actually take this off, which leads me to believe that they are either oblivious, lazy, or just don’t know.
  • About 20 percent of the time they actually don’t have mugs available, and they automatically put it in ToGo cups.
  • When I ask for a mug for my coffee and then also ask for a water, they put my water in a plastic ToGo cup also instead of giving me a real cup for the water (or asking!).
  • About 20 percent of the time they start making my drink in a ToGo cup, remember I asked for a mug, and then throw the ToGo cup away. 
  • Signs on the recycling bins (with the two holes) should be much clearer. 

It’s time for Starbucks to be the leader we know they can be. It’s time to switch to paper straws and compostable cups in every location, not just Santa Cruz, and start promoting reusables.

Starbucks, the time is now to be the solution to plastic pollution. 

Jackie Nuñez is the founder of The Last Plastic Straw, a project of Plastic Pollution Coalition. She lives in Santa Cruz, California. 

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7 responses to “How Starbucks Can Stop Its Plastic Problem”

  1. I’ve walked past their garage cans and they are overflowing with plastic cups. People are so oblivious to the effects the cups with the plastic straws are having on the environment. Starbucks is having a negative influence on other countries that traditionally use ceramic cups. Americans opt for their paper or plastic over the useable cups of the other businesses. Tackey!!!

  2. The correct course for Starbucks is to promote and incentivize reuse! With all the positive publicity around their alleged pledge for strawless cups, this article reminds us to keep sight of the greater mission. Starbucks, put those millions of dollars in advertising budget towards your reusable merchandise, and train your staff to reinforce this bottom line!

  3. says:

    Please correct to San Mateo County. Can you provide an example or two of Starbucks that are in the County and outside of the City of Santa Cruz? Also, a link to the ordinance? Thanks!!

  4. James says:

    What about their push to sell K-cups for home use? Not exactly environmental but sure helps the profit margins. Seems to me that their focus on in-store cups and straws is just a ploy.

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