Starbucks: Coffee Cups, Consumption, and Conflicts

By Nikki Florio, reprinted with permission

As the irrefutable champion in global coffee industry, Starbucks has been looked at skeptically by sustainability professionals everywhere. Being one of the skeptics myself, when I had the opportunity to attend a recent conference where their CSR Director was presenting, I decided to attend and do an article.

Starbuck’s Director of Environmental Impact, Jim Hanna (pictured), presented as a keynote speaker during the recent 2012 Used Oil + HHW + WSSPN Conference in Sacramento. The conference focused on reduction of resources and chemicals in industries ranging from used oil to pharmaceuticals; with other work- shops related to sustainable packaging, recycling, up cycling & more.

Armed with a directional power-point presentation, Mr. Hanna covered issues related to Starbucks overall energy consumption, new store energy and water conservation measures, community outreach, and cups. The latter of which, remains a looming issue as Starbuck’s customers go through roughly 4 billion cups per year. Starbucks, Mr. Hanna says, is aware of the impact of these cups, both in the fact that they do not require cup manufacturers to source from FSC certified forests, and in the fact that they all have the potential to be recycled. One of the steps Starbucks had made already is to insure their cups contain 10 percent post-consumer content. Starbucks is right on track with their napkins, made from 100 percent recycled paper; manufactured in a Wisconsin plant where recycled content comes from a variety of resources within a 500 mile radius.

For the cold/iced drinks, Starbucks uses a #5 plastic (polypropylene) which currently has a lower initial/manufacturing footprint than a #1 or #2. Mr. Hanna also says that, “With current recycling systems, they are just about as recyclable as #1 PET cups. Any community that accepts “mixed plastics” (usually #3-#7) in their systems can recycle our PP cups…” adding, “The beauty of PP is that it is a much more forgiving plastic in the recycling system, so you can mix various sources of PP without contaminating the whole load.”

One of the biggest problems in current plastic cup recycling waste-streams is the contamination of corn-based bio-plastics. In addition to having different melting points, it can introduce new chemicals that make the final product weaker, or even unstable. Corn-based compostables, in general are a bad thing because they come from primarily GMO sources, which in and of itself, is extremely oil and chemical intensive, as well as being a bio-contaminant.

As the lead sustainability director for the company, Mr. Hanna is currently seeking better ways to inspire and encourage customers to use and purchase reusable cups/mugs. Due to time constraints, Mr. Hanna did not have time to present sustainability information regarding Starbucks primary product, coffee. As a water, chemical, and human intensive product when it is farmed conventionally, coffee is considered a dirty industry when it comes to social and environmental responsibility. However, when farmed sustainably, and with social/ environmental impacts in mind, it can be an economically, environmentally, and socially, positive crop.

I spoke with Mr. Hanna after his presentation regarding this issue, asking about Starbucks coffee, in relation to its particular sustainability measures. After several questions on both sides related to the definitions – and certifications – related to organic, sustainable, Fair Trade, local/national/international certifiers, I was told that they do have a relatively small percent of organic and Fair Trade certified coffees, however, in terms of non-certified organic/sustainable/fairly traded/community supported coffees, Starbucks CAFE program, currently covers about 200 indicators for sustainability and social equity. CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity) program is a self-regulated verification program. While I would rather see a (third party) certified program, Mr. Hanna states that while “fair trade is an amazing certification for raising awareness for farmers and agricultural practices… the transparency stops at the co-op”. Further stating, “…for us, CAFE demands transparency back to the picker [farmer]“.

“Starbucks”, Mr. Hanna reiterates, “is consistently working on ways to better its products and lessen its impacts.”