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January ’18 Editorial comment: Cup waste is a sustainability scandal

January ’18 Editorial comment: Cup waste is a sustainability scandal



This Editorial comment  first appeared in the January 18 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read more informative articles in the January and future issues of C&CI.

I was interested to read about advocacy organisation Stand.earth’s recent protest outside Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle as part of its #BetterCup campaign. The Bellingham-based group said it wants Starbucks to fulfil a commitment it made in 2008 to make a fully recyclable cup, without a plastic lining.

Its recent report, ‘Trashed: The Secret of the Starbucks Cup,’ explains that Starbucks’ cups cannot be processed in most recycling facilities because of that plastic lining. Instead, most of the 4 billion plus cups Starbucks serves annually end up in landfills, as do cups from nearly every other coffee chain around the world.

“Although Starbucks rightly states that coffee cups are accepted for recycling in a few major cities – including Seattle – the percentage of cups that successfully make it through the entire recycling process remains unclear,” Stand.earth said.

“We’re asking Starbucks to take responsibility for what it directly controls – how its cups are made. We explained some of this in an open letter to Starbucks staff, which we handed out to employees as they arrived for work.”

The group set up a ‘Cup Wall’ in front of Starbucks’ HQ, a piece of installation art made of 8,000 used Starbucks cups, symbolizing the number of paper cups thrown away every minute of every day. “Over the next few months,” it said, “we’ll be ramping up our campaign to convince Starbucks to finally keep its promise and make a #BetterCup. We know that when Starbucks decides it truly wants a 100 per cent recyclable cup, manufacturers will respond and develop a 100 per cent recyclable cup. Let’s help them get there.”

The group suggests that people should write to Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson about the issue. In the letter it proposes they use, Stand.earth said “In 2008, Starbucks boldly told the world it would serve a recyclable paper cup and increase reusable cup usage to 25% by 2015. Neither of these promises has been kept. Starbucks needs to do better.

“If Starbucks – the world’s biggest coffee chain – switches to a recyclable cup, the rest of the industry is very likely to follow. Together, this would make a huge difference to landfill waste around the globe. Starbucks made over US$12 billion in profit last year, so we know it can afford to invest in developing a better cup.”

I’ve written about the environmental issues surrounding paper cup waste in C&CI on a number of occasions. As I’ve noted before, it has been estimated that every year in the UK alone, 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away, and only one in 400 is recycled. The Guardian newspaper recently reported that more than 2.5 million disposable cups have been purchased by the UK’s environment department (!) for use in its restaurants and cafes over the past five years – that’s equivalent to nearly 1,400 a day. The Liberal Democrat party revealed that 516,000 disposable cups had been purchased by the department’s catering contractors in the last year alone.

The Lib Dems have been calling for a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups, a charge similar to a highly successful one introduced on plastic carrier bags, which has reduced usage in England by 85 per cent since it was introduced in October 2015. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has been taking evidence on the issue recently.

There have been a number of small-scale initiatives to try to reduce waste in recent years, but many of the major culprits – the big coffee shop chains – are sheepish about revealing how many cups are involved and what efforts they make to reduce waste. Unfortunately, single-use cups make up a major component of their consumer offering and are entrenched in their business model.

The coffee industry – and the speciality coffee industry in particular – makes a big deal of its commitment to sustainability, but it simply hasn’t done enough to address this issue. Nor, I’m sad to say, have organisations such as the Specialty Coffee Association, which has sustainability at the heart of what it does.

There are huge sustainability issues in producing countries still to be addressed, but there is another massive one to be tackled at the end of the supply chain, at the point of consumption. Stand.earth is right. It’s time for Mr Johnson and other industry leaders at well-known coffee chains to act.■ C&CI

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