Starbucks targets a plastics circular economy to drive waste management

EXCLUSIVE: There is no "competitive leverage" to be gained by failing to work with rival brands to tackle ongoing waste issues regarding paper coffee cups and the wider use of plastics, Starbuck's vice president of corporate affairs Simon Redfern has claimed.

Starbucks is working with Pentatonic to turn post-consumer plastic waste and coffee cups into furniture

Starbucks is working with Pentatonic to turn post-consumer plastic waste and coffee cups into furniture

High street coffee chain brands such as Starbucks have been on the receiving end of criticism over the last 18 months, after a high-profile media campaign from TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted that around 5,000 coffee cups were discarded every minute in the UK, meaning that around 2.5 billion are tossed aside each year - with less than 1% being recycled.

Response to the issue has been quick, with companies like Costa and Starbucks introducing in-store recycling systems and discounts for consumers who bring in reusable cups – in fact this initiative was in place at Starbucks before the recyclability of papers cups came to light.

But despite efforts from the brands, some have still been accused of ‘cynical greenwash’ over efforts to date. Speaking to edie ahead of his appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum in January, Starbucks vice president of corporate affairs Simon Redfern noted that the industry was committed to working together to help improve the waste management of the paper cups.

“This is definitely a focus,” Redfern said. “We do share the concern on this and we know we have a responsibility on this. In an ideal world we’d have more people using reusable cups - it’s why we have a £1 reusable cup in store, and for more than 10 years, we’ve offered a 25p discount on own cups.

“But I don’t think there’s any competitive leverage to be got here. We all need to get to the same place. I think we’ve worked together really closely with others and we’ve all been very transparent about how we’re working. But I do think we’re all passionate to get to the right answer as soon as we possibly can.”

The reason coffee cups are so difficult to recycle is because they are sealed with a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the interior. This lining - which is used in Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero cups - is bonded tightly to the paper to prevent it from going soggy, but polyethylene can’t be recycled along with ordinary paper waste by local councils. Additionally, more than 30% of the weight of cups sent for recycling is labelled as contamination and can’t be treated.

While Starbucks has tested the viability of alternative cups, a solution is not in place that could be rolled out commercially nationwide. As a result, Starbucks, Costa and other firms such as McDonalds have all agreed to collaborate of infrastructural solutions.

All three companies are working with the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) to rollout 400 recycling points for paper coffee cups. The collaboration hopes to emulate the recycling success of drink cartons, which are now collected by 92% of UK local authorities through kerbside collections and recycling bank systems.

Its part of an attempt to move the circular economy agenda towards consumers. Redfern noted that Starbucks and its waste contractors, which includes Veolia’s in-store coffee cup recycling system, can deal with any cups returned to stores, but that focus also had to be place on getting consumers to return or recycle purchases.

“Working with NGOs like Hubbub allows us to deal with control beyond our stores,” Redfern said. “When the cups leave the store, its organisations like Hubbub that are looking at how consumer behaviour will allow us to get the cups back in. We know that Veolia and our other providers can absolutely recycle them as long as they are in a clean stream.”

Hubbub’s Square Mile challenges essentially create city-wide collection points for these coffee cups, and retailers such as Caffé Nero, Costa and Starbucks offer recycling facilities and accept coffee cups in their stores, regardless of where they were purchased, through the initiative.

Elsewhere, Starbucks is working with the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group’s (PCRRG) Paper Cups Manifesto to develop collection and recycling opportunities for paper cups.

War on waste

For Redfern, paper cups are just one part of an approach to embed circular economy practices across all waste forms. Plastics have emerged as a serious waste problem that are damaging eco-systems and Redfern noted that work is well underway for Starbuck’s to champion new approaches to plastic use.

Starbucks is currently in talks with developers of the Refill app, already available in Bristol, where cafes, shops, hotels and businesses are encouraged to let the public refill water bottles for free. Redfern hopes that the entire Starbucks estate can be added to the app to enable people to fill up plastic water bottles for free, rather than purchasing new ones, by early 2018.

“We are passionate about the coffee cups, but it extends into other areas. It’s not just about this, and we’ve been taking new approaches to waste,” Redfern added. “We’ll add ourselves to the Refill map, and they can ask for water without having to buy anything.

“These are really easy wins for us where we can make a big material difference to the amount of plastic that people are using. Ultimately we believe in providing choice for customers and the way they consume their beverage.”

Starbucks is also working with furniture company Pentatonic to trial products that are made from post-consumer waste. Starbucks “bean chairs”, counter tops and tables have since been produced using upcycled textiles made from plastic waste.

The upholstery, cushioning, frame and legs of chairs have been produced from plastic bottles, while recycled paper cups and coffee cup lids have been used on the counter tops and shop tiles. While this was used as a demonstrative launch, Redfern revealed that Starbucks are examining which stores would be suitable to incorporate the items, with 1,000 upcycled chairs already being planned.


Simon Redfern at the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum

Simon Redfern is one of the expert speakers that will appear on stage at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum in January 2018.

Taking place on 24-25 January, the Sustainability Leaders Forum will bring together more than 600 ambitious professionals moving beyond environmental objectives to deliver transformational change and create brand value every year.

The two-day event, which runs alongside the Sustainability Leaders Awards, will feature interactive workshops and enhanced networking to give you the most comprehensive and immersive experience on the day. For more information and to book your place at the Forum, click here.

Matt Mace


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