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Facing substantial pressures—and following its own several years’ old sustainability commitments—Starbucks is seeking ways to make substantial changes to its cup designs and eliminate single-use plastic straws that cannot be recycled. The coffee retailer has developed a new lid that will take the place of a straw, which will be phased into use by 2020. Straws will continue to be available at the chain by customer request; however, those straws will be made from an alternative material such as paper or compostable plastic.

Environmentalists appreciate the consumer and industry buzz generated by this change, yet many insist that the chain’s actions are insufficient and, in some ways, have made its environmental impact worse. The new cup lids are made from polypropylene, a type of plastic that has become more difficult to recycle. Most facilities in the United States cannot recycle this type of plastic and will instead ship the material overseas for processing.

Historically China was the largest market for polypropylene, but that country recently banned further imports of polypropylene. Instead, polypropylene has been rerouted to facilities in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. However, environmentalists warn that the recycling infrastructure within these countries is inadequate, and much of the imported recycling material ultimately is being dumped into the ocean, instead of being processed for new use. Those damages affect the entire planet, so it is not as if Starbucks can simply export the problem.

Others retailers in the food service industry have taken steps to address single-use plastic on a more comprehensive scale. The food service company Aramark has announced its commitment to reducing plastic broadly by evaluating its uses in straws, stirrers, bags, cutlery, bottles, take-out containers, and packaging from suppliers. As this example shows, the problem of plastic recycling is far from limited to straws; indeed, the drinking tools account for a relatively small percentage of the overall volume of plastic that pollutes waterways.

In contrast, Starbucks’ plan to eliminate single-use straws by replacing them with larger lids that cannot easily be recycled seems inadequate. As public attention continues to focus on the environmental impact created by single-use plastic, Starbucks will likely need to reevaluate its practices once again, to find ways it can make more meaningful changes.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Starbucks’ effort sufficient? Why or why not?
  2. Should Starbucks continue focusing on straws or shift its focus to other environmental impacts of its products?

Source: Adele Peters, “Why Starbucks’s Plastic Straw Ban Might Not Help the Environment,” Fast Company, July 26, 2018; Adele Peters, “Starbucks Generates an Astronomical Amount of Waste—Can It Stop?” Fast Company, March 21, 2018