Starbucks faces "significant" recycling challenges

Starbucks faces "significant" recycling challenges

By Bobby Elliott, Resource Recycling

April 9, 2014

Sustainability leaders at coffee giant Starbucks say their in-store recycling efforts are being hampered by a lack of sufficient – and consistent – recycling infrastructure.

The recently released Starbucks Global Responsibility Report details the challenges the company has faced in achieving its goal of providing all U.S. and Canadian stores with recycling receptacles by 2015. In 2013, only 39 percent of those stores featured in-store recycling for customers, the report shows.

"With approximately 20,000 retail locations globally, conditions vary from city to city and from store to store – making it a challenge for us to efficiently and effectively implement uniform recycling strategies," the report states. "A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for a global business with stores in 62 countries."

The man behind Starbucks' environmental impact division, Jim Hanna, told Resource Recycling Starbucks recycling receptacles represent "the last step in a long process." According to Hanna, it's the infrastructure in place that dictates whether or not Starbucks can bring more bins to stores.

Hanna says several factors are at play in building local recycling infrastructure, including market demand, local recycling policies and the availability of commercial waste hauling services.

Despite a gain of 15 percentage points from 2012 in Starbucks North American receptacle access, 2013 saw decreased acceptance rates for used paper cups, an item at the center of the company's recycling goals. The cups, which are made from 10 percent recycled fiber, are recyclable, Starbucks says, but they have a polyethylene coating.

"That limits the amount of paper mills that can take that material," Hanna said, adding that there's "a good critical mass of paper mills throughout the U.S. that can easily process poly-coated paper."

Hanna also said the company is currently engaged in an effort to get paper cups accepted uniformly in coated paper bales (also known as No. 52), which would help streamline the process of recycling the products. He said lids are able to separated out at most MRFs and can go into mixed plastics bales. The company's plastic cups for cold beverages, meanwhile, can be recycled as clear polypropylene.

Starbucks plans to continue partnerships with the Foodservice Packaging Institute, local governments and the recycling industry to enable in-store recycling and push for increased curbside collection services. Research has shown that "a vast amount" of to-go cups from Starbucks "end up in people's homes," Hanna said, and pushing for residential collection often leads to gains in commercial collection services as well.

"If a community invests in the infrastructure to collect a material on the residential side, often the haulers will just collect the material on the commercial side," Hanna said.

Starbucks is also tracking reuse numbers. In 2013 1.8 percent of beverages went into tumblers customer brought with them into the store, up from 1.5 percent in 2012 and 2011 but still behind a 5 percent reuse goal set for 2015.

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