Coffee chains ramp up cup recycling efforts

Although the coffee space has become more crowded, some leaders in the segment have shifted attention to the cup rather than the bean, and collaboration rather than competition.

Starbucks, for example, was recently joined by Tim Hortons for its third annual Cup Summit. The event featured more than 100 representatives from all facets of the paper and plastic cup chain, including municipalities, raw material suppliers, manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses and recyclers. Their objective was to brainstorm ways to get coffee cups out of landfills entirely by 2015.

The goal is daunting considering Starbucks currently sells about 8.2 million paper cups of recyclable cups a day. The cups are recyclable; however, recyclable does not mean "recycled," as Jim Hanna, the chain's director of environmental impact, discussed at the event.

Hanna said Tim Hortons has a successful recycling program and is a good example of how to communicate to, and make it easier for, customers to recycle.

Carol Patterson, environmental affairs manager at Tim Hortons, said part of the company's current recycling success comes from involving customers in the bin design process.

"We use our restaurants to engage our guests and our team members and design our bins to be simple and efficient. We make sure we have flexible signage, specific to a flexible market, using pictures and text so someone can look quickly and know where the coffee cup or water bottle goes," she said.

Tim Hortons also has recycle bins available through the drive-thru, covered by an awning so the paper doesn't get wet, and different-sized openings for each recyclable item.

"Beyond that, we're trying to have our team members engage with guests on this issue. We want (customers) to stop, pause and decide what they're going to do with their waste at the end of their stay," Patterson said.

Infrastructure and behavior changes

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There are many factors as to why the number of cups recycled is short of 100 percent, including holes in the infrastructure, contamination, availability (many municipalities don't offer recycling) and ineffective communication from operator to customer.

According to its most recent corporate responsibility report, less than 10 percent of Starbucks locations have recycling bins for consumers to use. This low number is mainly due to the lack of services in an area.

Contamination remains a tricky issue to navigate, as well. Cups that aren't mostly empty before being placed in a recycling receptacle may throw off an entire batch.

"If we could get the liquids out of the cup, it would make it a much better situation for us, in terms of recycling," said Joe Burke, director of sales of Action Carting Environmental Services, a New York-based provider of environmentally responsible waste management services. Action Carting participated with Starbucks and Global Green in a paper cup recycling pilot last year.

If contamination is minimized, Burke's company and others like it have a better chance of selling the commodity to a secondary market to get recycled. He suggests that operators use clear plastic bags to better identify whether or not there is contamination.

Perhaps the biggest challenge en route to the 100-percent-recycled goal is in changing the fundamental behaviors of a coffee-dependent consumer base.

"If I know emptying out my cup – that takes one second – can help make this recycling thing work, now I'm paying attention. It's up to us to communicate the message and to customers to take that time," Hanna said.

That may be easier said than done, however. While Tim Hortons continues to rollout visible bins and engage customers, Starbucks has added incentives to get customers to reduce usage, including a 10-cent discount for those who bring in reusable tumblers. However, this enticement has fallen short of being a "good driver for behavior change," according to Hanna. Starbucks has tried alternative plans, including tapping into its My Starbucks idea website.

"We're looking into what drives our customers to bring their own mugs into our stores and have deployed crowd sourcing to help us understand what the best incentives are," he said.

Hanna said there are several simple tips consumers can keep in mind to achieve change, including:

  • Choose how to spend your dollar. Spend your dollar at businesses that have an ethic around sustainability. "Go to the companies that are doing the right thing," he said.
  • Keep companies on their toes. "If you walk into a Starbucks and you see a practice you don't like, let the manager know," Hanna said.
  • Be a catalyst for change. Hanna said Starbucks is not recycling in a lot of stores because the infrastructure doesn't exist at this time. If you don't have recycling in your community, take action, ask why and demand change.
  • Finally, spend that extra second when you're finished up with a beverage to recycle. "That small amount of time will make a great difference," Hanna said.

Other chains answering the call

Although this was the third Cup Summit hosted by Starbucks with Tim Hortons participating, the two coffee giants are hardly alone in tackling the recycling issue.

McDonald's most recent responsibility report includes an overview of the company's frappe cup and lid, rolled out first in France in 2009, that is made with 40 percent recycled plastic. Its introduction reduced the amount of virgin resin needed by 123 metric tons per year, and the amount of landfill waste by an equivalent amount.

Stateside, McDonald's USA has worked with HAVI Global Solutions to transition to a plastic material called Clarified Polypropylene (CPP) for McCafe beverage cups, achieving cost savings and delivering environmental benefits while maintaining performance and product image. The CPP package uses 20 percent less material, which led to a cost reduction of 15 percent and generated 20 percent less solid waste.

Also, as Dunkin' Donuts continues to grow, one of its main initiatives is to reduce waste and, by 2012, achieve a sustainable cup solution. To reduce waste in the interim, the company reduced the weight of the foam hot and plastic cold cups in 2009.

A pilot test in-store foam cup recycling program is expected to be in place by 2013.

In the company's inaugural social responsibility report, CEO Nigel Travis wrote: "While we realize that the most prominent sustainability issue we must deal with is our Dunkin' Donuts foam cup. While there is currently no single-use hot beverage cup on the market that meets our criteria for performance cost and recyclability, we are committed to solving this and other packaging issues."

Read more about sustainability efforts.

Photo provided by bschmove.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Jim Henderson
    If Starbucks is serious about eliminating paper cup waste, they should start by ending their practice of replacing cups and lids for coffee refills. This so called "health code requirement" does nothing to protect me from my own germs nor does it protect Starbucks employees, who take my cup only to throw it out. While Starbuck is tossing out perfectly usable cups they are encouraging customers to bring in their own reusable coffee mugs. I bet you won't find any germs on those things.
  • Buzz Chandler
    With all the noted challenges chains are having with recycling and related contamination issues, why are more chains, municipalities etc., looking at certified compostable hot cups and lids? They exist and are in plentiful supply, and now pricing is equivalent to the standard hot cup and polypropylene lids.

    Compostable eliminates much of the contamination problems of left over food or beverages in the cups/containers, is dealt with locally, via commercial composting, eliminating the need for all the added transportation and reprocessing energy needs and costs. Much of what has been stated in the article seems to be trying to solve a problem that has already been solved largely if one makes the switch to a compostable lid and cup..
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