Greening the green giant

Starbucks’ new “Global Responsibility Report” is now online. It’s an interesting example of corporate transparency (or greenwashing depending on your level of skepticism) and provides some insight into how difficult it is for a company that size to go green, even when it wants to. Encouraging recycling, for example, isn’t as simple as just putting out proper bins:

The world of garbage and recycling is complicated. We’d like the solution to be as simple as putting recycling bins in all of our stores. Unfortunately, residential garbage collection and recycling is usually controlled by city or county governments who either manage it directly or contract it out to private haulers. These local authorities can provide subsidies and sometimes mandate whether or not the haulers have to collect paper, glass, plastics or compostable waste.

For commercial recycling (such as at a Starbucks store), the items that get collected are almost always driven by the open market. This means that if the haulers can get a good price for recyclable materials (cardboard, glass, plastic, food-contaminated paper products), they’ll collect it from local businesses. But if they can’t get a good price – or when there’s not a critical mass of materials to collect – they may not collect them because there’s no financial benefit for them.

One other significant challenge is the fact that half of our stores are located in leased spaces where we don’t control waste collection and recycling. Our landlords often determine whether tenants can recycle based on space availability and commercial recycling services.

Paper cups are another difficult problem. According to the report, they make up half the paper the company buys in a year. An easy change is encouraging stores to return to using ceramic mugs for in-store drinks, which would be nice regardless of the environmental impact. A harder change is making the cups themselves more environmentally friendly. Starbucks deserves from being a pioneer here, putting a lot of effort into innovation to get cups with recycled paper content approved by the FDA. From an old Marketplace story:

So Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA’s approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

GEORGE MATTHEWS: We worked on this for about four years.

George Matthews is executive VP at Mississippi River Corporation, one of Starbucks’ suppliers. His pulp company had to prove to the FDA it was safe to drink from a recycled-content cup. That meant eliminating any potentially harmful substances from the high-grade office paper in recycled pulp.

MATTHEWS: The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn’t been done before.

The FDA finally approved. Starbucks is now selling coffee in paper cups with 10 percent post-consumer fiber.

The cups themselves are often not recyclable though because of their plastic liners. According to the report, that’s the next technological hurdle SBUX is trying to overcome.

A technological advance I’d like to see? Not using a stupid Flash webpage that I can’t link to directly. So if you’d like to customize your own report, go here and start from scratch.

[Via Starbucks Gossip and Coffee City.]

Cups and councils


2 thoughts on “Greening the green giant”

  1. Paper cups with petroleum based linings can be recycled (95% of them can anyway)
    The 5% that cannot is the lining itself which cannot be recycled. Paper recovery companies can recycle these products.
    As I understand it the problem is that the products, irrespective of how they are made or how recyclable they are can become non-recyclable depending on what has been put in them (in fact, paper cup companies cannot claim any product, PLA lined or otherwise is recyclable or biodegradable after use as the manufacturer doesn’t know what is going to be put in the cup!)

  2. Recycling doesn’t exactly save money. Houghton says, “Exporters are paid a few cents per pound, whereas proper recycling costs a company like Redemtech a few cents per pound net of materials recovery values. So companies that adopt a policy of responsible recycling are choosing to incur a small incremental expense that is a component of responsible electronics ownership.”

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