It's a Marketing Icon. Starbucks Hopes It Goes Away

Chain is trying to phase out its famous disposable cups by 2030
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 16, 2023 4:35 PM CDT
It's a Marketing Icon. Starbucks Hopes It Goes Away
A reusable cup is returned to a bin at Arizona State University. At the Arizona State store, if customers don't bring their own cup, they are given a reusable plastic one with a Starbucks logo. If they bring it back, they get $1 off, just like customers who bring their own.   (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For a generation and more, the Starbucks cup has been a cornerstone of consumer society, first in the United States and then globally—the throwaway cup with the emerald logo depicting a longhaired siren with locks like ocean waves. Ubiquitous to the point of being an accessory, it has carried a message: I am drinking the world's most recognizable coffee brand, per the AP. Now, in an era where concern for sustainability can be good business, the Starbucks disposable cup may be on its way to extinction thanks to an unlikely force: Starbucks itself. By 2030, the company wants to move away completely from disposable cups, which represent big portions of the company's overall waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our vision for the cup of the future—and our Holy Grail, if you will—is that the cup still has the iconic symbol on it," says Michael Kobori, head of sustainability at Starbucks. "It's just as a reusable cup." Still, while customers want companies to be environmentally conscious, that doesn't mean they're willing to give up convenience. And there's this: Could eliminating the millions of paper and plastic cups used each year hurt Starbucks? After all, those cups, in the hands of customers, are advertising—a market penetration that makes Starbucks feel ubiquitous. Still, at some two dozen pilot stores in the US, Starbucks has stopped serving coffee in disposable paper or plastic cups. Customers who don't bring their own cup are given a reusable plastic one that can be returned or dropped off in bins. Those who bring their own cups or the reusables get a $1 discount.

Starbucks is not the first company to push toward a reusable cup, but as the largest coffee company in the world—with more than 37,000 stores in 86 countries—it could force industry change. Jon Solorzano, a Los Angeles lawyer who advises companies on developing climate-friendly operations, says the company likely has hundreds of suppliers that help manufacture cups. "It's kind of like turning an aircraft carrier around," Solorzano says. "Little tiny tweaks, which seem insignificant, can actually have big operational challenges for an organization." However, the company has a long way to go. Since the reintroduction of reusable cups in some stores in July 2021, only 1.2% of worldwide sales in fiscal year 2022 came from reusables. Starbucks refused to provide data on how many disposable cups it uses in any given year.

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Valencia Villanueva, a barista at a store by Arizona State University that is testing the reusable cup system, has noted a growing consciousness among customers about the system. That gives her confidence that the future is reusable cups. After all, it's not as if anyone is clamoring to be wasteful—even if what they're giving up is an item that became something of a global status symbol. "Nobody," she says, "has complained and said they wanted a single-use cup." (Read the full story, which digs into the logistics of the pilot program and its cup-washing system.)

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