The Starbucks Cup Summit: Rethinking the Recycling System

When I got the invitation to Starbucks’ second Cup Summit in April, I was struck by the ambitiousness of the agenda.  According to the email, the purpose of the meeting was to help the company meet its goal of making its hot and cold single-use cups “recyclable in form and practice” by 2012.

What that means is not just that the cups are made of recyclable material but that they also get recycled.  As Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ Director of Environmental Impact said, “We have to ensure our customers actually have access to recycling services at their homes, at work, and in our stores.”  Given how widely the availability of recycling varies by city and county across the US, this is indeed a tall order.

The Cup Summit is the latest step on a journey that Starbucks began in the late 1990s, when the company partnered with EDF to reduce the environmental impacts of serving coffee.  Starbucks went on to introduce the first-ever recycled-content disposable cup in 2006. Closing the loop by making its cups recyclable is the next logical step. 

Designing a recyclable cup essentially means redesigning the recycling system in the US.  And that involves changing lots of people’s minds about what’s possible.

What Starbucks is really trying to do is to create a new paper and plastic recycling system.  This means not just changing the operations of countless players in the supply chain but also changing the way people think about the system and their roles in it.

So on Earth Day at MIT, Starbucks brought together over a hundred people from all corners of that system, including paper and plastic suppliers, cup manufacturers, waste haulers and recyclers, competitors and municipalities. Peter Senge – the father of systems thinking and our facilitator for the day – challenged us to think big:  “What can each of you contribute to making this system work?  And what does each of you need to make the system work for you?”

We broke into groups, questioned assumptions, asked “what if,” and came up with an array of initiatives that participants committed to advancing after the meeting.  My group brainstormed ways to build plastic cup collection into an existing pilot program for paper cups in New York City stores.

Starbucks recognizes that disposable cups constitute a small fraction of its overall environmental impact.  But if Starbucks can catalyze a transformation in the recycling system – enabling the recovery and recycling not only of its own cups but also of the billions of disposable cups consumed every year – the environmental benefits will be huge.

I look forward to following the progress of this initiative, and hope to join Starbucks in celebrating a victory for systems thinking – and for the Earth – in a couple of years.

One comment

  • recycling should always be implemented to avoid to much pollution in the environment ~'"

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