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The Muggle and the Big Ugly Pile of Discarded Coffee Cups

Starbucks recently announced that they are making $10 million in grants available to people with proposals for coffee cups that are compostable and recyclable. So it seems timely to do a post on this dreaded topic.

Throughout development, the solution will be open source so others can benefit and innovate on the path towards the development of recyclable and compostable cups around the world.

First (to help abate any rise in blood pressure that you might be experiencing about now) let me state the obvious: JUST BRING YOU OWN MUG!! I’ll return to consumer habits about personal mug use after a few obligatory stats (skip the next paragraph if you don’t need the stats 🙂 )

There’s a staggering statistic in that Starbucks press release – 600 billion paper coffee cups are distributed worldwide each year. 600 billion! (Starbucks accounts for around 6 billion of these.) There are only 7.6 billion people on the planet, so that’s almost 100 paper cups every year for every single person (and you can exclude babies and people living in extreme poverty as heavy users of disposable coffee cups). In the UK, half a million cups are littered every day. the remainder of the 7 million cups used daily in the UK are thrown into bins, except for the tiny proportion (<1%) that are recycled. Recycling of these plastic-lined disposable cups is very tricky and not widely available.

Why isn’t Starbucks already using compostable cups?

If Starbucks really wanted to start using compostable cups, they could do so today – at least at pilot scale. I’ve been to many cafes that serve coffee in compostable cups (for those who’ve forgotten their mug), especially in places like Hawaii where plastic-lined litter is particularly undesirable (e.g., Ha Coffee bar in Kauai, 5/5 Green Stars). Compostable cups  are available from World Centric at $6 for a pack of 50 – about the same cost as the personal mug discount that Starbucks currently offers in the US. I’m sure Starbucks would get a good bulk discount considering that they would need to buy a pack of 6,000,000,000 cups per year. By the way, I’ve reviewed a compostable product from World Centric before, which you can read here (5/5 Green Stars).

How to encourage personal cup use

I know that I’ve written about Starbucks before – twice, in fact (the second post contained a reader-generated Green Stars rating for Starbucks) – and it may seem that I’m giving them a hard time. But actually it’s out of hope/optimism that I am focusing on them – they have some good aspects, which I’ve covered in the posts above.

Starbucks has tried several approaches to encourage personal cup use, from offering a cup discount to selling tumblers and cheap reusable cups. They also tried a significantly larger than normal discount in London for a limited time (50p) but apparently found that this didn’t “move the needle” enough.

Encouraging personal cup use at Starbucks

Last year, I wrote to Starbucks senior management with some suggestions for increasing personal cup use. This year, they are adopting one of these ideas (whether that’s partly from my influence or not, I don’t know, because communication broke down after a couple of emails) to try a disposable cup charge instead of a personal cup discount. I had come across the idea at a Caffe Strada in Berkeley (reviewed here; 4/5 Green Stars) and I think that psychologically,  a charge can be more effective than a discount. The idea was successful in changing consumer attitudes to plastic shopping bags. Starbucks are going to introduce a 5p cup charge in a few dozen branches in London to see if the idea will make a difference to customer behavior. Personally, I think the charge should be at least 15p. Here’s some data showing how personal cup use increased around 600% after Caffe Strada introduced the 15 cents disposable cup charge:

Personal cup use increased around 600% after Caffe Strada started charging 15 cents for disposable cups (Source: The Student Environmental Resource Center at UC Berkeley)

I believe that adopting a disposable cup charge will make a huge difference if adopted by global coffee chains. Right now, Starbucks is going in several directions at once, and not all are positive. For example, they are heavily pushing their mobile order service: you order on your phone and before you can say, Accio Coffee, it’s ready for pick-up. But, by definition, mobile ordering also means accepting a disposable Starbucks cup.

On her blog, ByoToGo, Megan focuses on attitudes towards coffee cup use in New York cafes. In a recent Coffee Shop Hop post, she describes her experience in persuading a local Starbucks manager to bring in ceramic cups (they had none at all in stock). You can also can also follow progress on her Cup Switch program on YouTube and Instagram.

The Muggle!

Finally, after thinking about this issue a lot over the years, I’ve come up with an idea that I hope to spend some time developing. Collaborators are welcome.

One of the main reasons that people (including myself) sometimes don’t carry a mug with them is space availability. I carry a water bottle most of the time and a mug only some of the time. I’d say that many people have this same priority: water bottle first, then mug. And a bag only has so much space. So, my idea is to combine the two.

Hence, the working title for the project: The Muggle! (Combined mug-water-bottle.)

If J.K. Rowling doesn’t like the idea, I’ll change the name. But first, I have to decide on which materials to use.

Suggestions for design changes or materials to use are very welcome!

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